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Rooting Out Kudzu the Spartanburg Way

by Dianne Smith Fergusson

“Far Eastern vines. . . . prospered until rooted out.” James Dickey“Kudzu” 

In Dickey’s famous poem, the farmers bring in hogs to control the kudzu and sit shivering in dread as they await the coming of cold to kill the “long living vines.” Spartanburg’s approach is perhaps less poetic is proving to be equally as effective.

In the mid-30s, eight kudzu plants were brought into Spartanburg County to help control erosion. This was a standard practice in the south back then, and kudzu was hailed as the savior of southern farm land. Now in 2007, kudzu has spread all over the county—and all over the south—and is seen not as a savior but as a threat, not just to farm land but to urban areas as well.

Enter the Kudzu Coalition, that’s short for “Coalition to Control Kudzu without Chemical Means,” a grassroots (pardon the pun) organization formed to control and eradicate kudzu in the urban environment. This dynamic group has, in the three years since it was formed, attacked kudzu at the crown level and made a major impact on the appearance of Spartanburg.

Formed by Newt Hardie, a retired engineer, as part of his Master Gardener community service requirement, the Coalition is a passionate and dedicated group that has made the eradication of kudzu by non-chemical means its controlling purpose. The loosely organized group sponsors “kudzu parties” where groups of volunteers work with hatchets, saws and a skid steer to remove the vines and kill the crowns and rescue trees and roadsides that have been enveloped with kudzu.

“Kill it when and where we find it,” a comment by board member Lou Adams, a retired scientist, is the unofficial motto of the Kudzu Coalition. And, as anyone familiar with the south knows, they find it everywhere—along street banks, cascading over the sidewalk behind the town’s famous Beacon restaurant, inching into a lake built by the WPA in the 1930s, wrapped around trees in residential neighborhoods, climbing over abandoned buildings and creeping into parks and nature preserves throughout the city and county. The group has experimented with a variety of non-chemical means of killing kudzu and maintains a study site behind the YMCA in downtown Spartanburg. Methods range from cutting out the crowns to sheeting with clear and black plastic to smothering with grass clippings to use a patented device to keep it from climbing utility poles to green mesh fencing to keep it from invading cleared spaces. Studies are on-going as to the most effective method. All around Spartanburg one can see the results of their work marked with little plastic flags, each representing a kudzu crown that has been killed.

Killing kudzu without chemicals is a highly labor-intensive activity, and the Coalition has recently reached out to local high schools to bolster their volunteer corps. Several area high schools have joined the effort, with groups of students from JROTC classes, honors organizations, student councils and others adding community service hours for future college applications and just having a good time helping the environment as they work. Most of these are weekend sessions, but some special education teachers have been quick to see the attractions of the kudzu parties for their students as well. In one local high school, the Coalition works with classes during the school day with the special education students having the responsibility of placing the flags as each crown is killed.

All of the high school students will come together in a celebration planned for late April in Spartanburg. The first annual “Kudzu Kapers” will feature demonstrations, competitions and the awarding of prizes for kudzu art and literature. These monetary prizes are being sponsored by Juanitta Baldwin, a Tennessee writer who has a particular interest in kudzu. Ms. Baldwin’s books include Kudzu Cuisine a fun cookbook on how to use this plentiful legume for everything from tea to pasta salad and “Kudzu In America”with information on the history of kudzu and what can be done in the future. Mrs. Baldwin says, “About twenty years ago I became aware of the serious problem kudzu is causing to our environment, so I made a thorough study of the vine. I was pleasantly astonished to learn that in the Orients, kudzu is prized as a source of food, medicine and useful consumer products such as fabric and wallpaper.”Nancy Basket, a South Carolina artisan whose kudzu baskets have won awards, will be on hand to demonstrate her craft. In addition to celebrating the work of the high school students, Kudzu Kapers hopes to attract some new volunteers from the community and will offer participants the opportunity to get into the patch and kill some kudzu.

The Coalition’s scope is about to get bigger as they make plans to take their efforts statewide. A training course for teachers who would like to provide a meaningful service learning project for their students should be ready to go this summer. The Coalition has a “swat team” that goes on the road to other communities to provide training and assistance in setting up their own version of Spartanburg’s project.

The purpose of the Kudzu Coalition is to inform and educate individuals, and organizations, that are interested in confronting the threat that kudzu presents to their community beautification investments. But what draws people to the fascinating work of killing kudzu, a feat that some say can’t ever really be done. Dealing with a plant that can grow up to 90 feet in one season is a daunting task, but board member Barbara Daniels isn’t intimidated. “Working alongside Newt and the volunteers is a gift I give myself,” she says. “I am healthier and happier participating in Coalition endeavors. Kudzu Control draws bright, like-minded people together; each volunteer brings a talent, a gift or an inspiration. We learn from each other and we teach each other.”

Barbara is typical of the volunteers who keep this project alive in Spartanburg County. “We always quit before they’re ready to stop,” Newt says of the kudzu parties. “That way we don’t wear anyone out and we don’t get discouraged about the scope of the project.” Attacking kudzu with the purpose of eliminating it from the urban landscape is a different kind of gardening as Lou Adams points out. “When you think of gardening work, you think of adding plants as part of a beautification activity. The Coalition is engaged in removing plants as part of a beautification activity. This seems backwards somehow, but there it is.”

Going into its fourth year, the Coalition, like the kudzu it works to control, is getting stronger with each day. A vibrant and “living” website—www.kokudzu.com-- keeps everyone informed of their progress and plans. Thanks to their continuing efforts, the residents of Spartanburg don’t have to fear that old Georgia legend in Dickey’s poem:
“ . . you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house.” 

(First published in Y'all Magazine, 2007. Reprinted by permission of the author)

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