April 23, 2010

The Time-Value of Gardening Labor

Four years ago I made a unilateral decision to grow potatoes in our community garden plot. I chose premium seed Russets, dusted them properly, dug two mighty trenches and watered them exactly according to instruction. Two weeks later, I was rewarded with dark green potato shoots and, a month later, with vigorous plants that I mounded in a manner that was Victory-Garden worthy.

Somewhere between the shoots and the second mounding, the Colorado Potato Beetle News Network apparently offered a too-good-to-turn-down feed’n’breed excursion fare to Medfield. Though there were no other plots with potatoes in them, I arrived one morning to find my two rows infested with the nasty little things. (The alternative explanation is parthenogenesis and I don’t want to go there.)

For the next three months, I picked potato beetles and smooshed potato beetle egg masses. I stopped by the garden twice each day to get both the early risers and the evening adventurers. Still, they arrived in quantities that defied all logic because I would find dozens of bugs each visit. Finally, in mid-September I dug up the two rows and bagged the resulting production. I figured I had about twenty pounds of spuds.

That very weekend, a Roche Brothers flyer arrived announcing Prince Edward Island potatoes at 99 cents for a ten-pound bag.

I felt compelled to compute the value of my labor. Even excluding travel time (I always weeded other vegetables while at the garden), I spent a minimum of twenty minutes a day on potato beetle duty. I did this for, say, sixty days. That’s 1200 minutes or twenty hours. All to get $1.98 worth of potatoes.

Generously rounded up, that’s ten cents an hour for my labor. And I lied. There were times when there was nothing else to do in the garden except pick beetles.

I have not grown potatoes since.

I have, however, removed a stump. Three years ago, a 60-foot-high, five-stem clump birch was cut down because it was a) considerably taller that our home and b) dangerously close to our septic system. Cutting it down was the easy part. We did it in February and were left with a two-foot high stump. I proposed putting a sundial on it. The idea went nowhere.

We then went looking for someone to either grind out or pull out the stump. Our problem was that the birch was in the middle of a perennial bed with other shrubs in very close proximity. Everyone with whom we spoke said that the stump grinder would have to sit in the bed, destroying perennials that would begin emerging in March. A backhoe would be even more disastrous.

Not knowing what I was getting into, I volunteered to dig out the stump by hand. I figured it was a weekend’s work. It actually took six weeks. Granted, it wasn’t a full-time job, but there were days I spent four hours on the project. In the end, though, the root mass was extracted from a hole of the narrowest possible width and no plants or shrubs were destroyed.  (That's me in the root hole when the job was done.)

What was the value per hour of labor? It’s impossible to say. Because no contractor could meet our requirements, we never got as far as asking for a price. We also got exactly what we wanted in terms of results. Like the MasterCard says, some things are priceless.  Above is a photo of the bed taken today (April 23).

Not so my current project. Last autumn, we had a pair of Norway maples removed from the front of our property. The contractor offered, for an additional $200, to grind out the stumps. We declined for reasons that are ambiguous (I thought we would just throw some dirt over the one stump and call it done).

This past week, I began digging out the one stump that lies in the path of the expansion of our front shrub bed. I am working on it for about ninety minutes a day, after breakfast. Thus far I have, by my count, about eight hours into the project. I’m down 18 inches all around the stump and have cut through some huge roots but it still won’t move. In the meantime I’m getting a great upper-body and cardio workout; a fine antidote to sitting at a computer all day.

I’ll be interested in the time-value of this project. If it comes out over the weekend and I log, say, twelve total hours, my time will have been worth $16.66 an hour. Not that I’m counting, mind you, but I’ve got a lot of high-value make-up jobs to erase that ten cent an hour gig from 2006.

Post Script:  The last of the stump surrendered to the axe at 8:35 on Sunday morning.  A little over twelve hours, total.  You do the math.

April 22, 2010

The season's first mowing

“God bless the lawn mower, he thought. Who was the fool who made January first New Year’s Day? No, they should set a man to watch the grasses across a million Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa lawns and, on that morning when it was long enough for cutting… there should be a great swelling symphony of lawn mowers… People should throw grass spray at each other on the day that really represents the Beginning.”

In Ray Bradbury’s wonderful autobiographical novel, Dandelion Wine, a character opines that it is the year’s first mowing of the lawn that ought to represent the changing of the year, rather than some arbitrary day set down by the Romans two millennia ago. Sadly, it’s one of those impractical sentiments that doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny (were such a law enacted today, it would be 2011 in Georgia two months earlier than in Massachusetts, and California and Florida might be stuck in some eternal 2010).

Those obstacles aside, I have a soft spot for Bradbury’s view because, to me, there’s nothing like that first mowing to demonstrate that spring is unequivocally here to stay. Crocus and daffodils can be reduced to mush by a hard freeze. A late snow can turn the emergent leaves on a tree or shrub a dispiriting black. But when the grass – scratched into life with a spring rake and a dose of lime – gets to be three inches high, it means the new season has truly arrived.

We had our first mowing of the year this week. Instead of the typical quadrangles or up-and-down pattern of our neighbors, we follow the sinuous contours of several perennial beds. It takes longer to mow such a pattern but the effect can be seen for a week afterwards: long swirls of repeating curves with the grass bent ever so slightly one way, then another in a yin-yang pattern that pleases the eye, especially from a second-story window.

Because our lawn is mixed with clover, we cannot (and choose not to) use the broad-leaf weed control products that are found on most lawns. Instead, as I mow, I am constantly on dandelion patrol. I carry a screwdriver in my back pocket and, when I find the tell-tale spiky leaves flat to the ground, I pounce and dig out the offending plant, root and all. I found perhaps two dozen dandelions that first mowing. They won’t be the last. Around here, dandelions rarely make it as far as a flower and never get to a seed head.
Taraxacum officinale, the botanical name for the dandelion, is not allowed in the lawn. Yet, in addition to clover (encouraged) we tolerate violets (white and purple) so long as they don’t spread conspicuously, and we actively make room for an early spring wildflower, scilla siberica, which is attempting to colonize one corner of our lawn. Our tolerance for the scilla is such that I mow around the stems in order to ensure that adequate nutrition gets to the bulb for next spring’s bloom.

We converted to a cordless electric mower last year. It was as much a statement about my dislike of changing oil (and figuring out what to do with the gunk) as it was of ‘going green’. One overnight charge givers us the requisite power to mow the roughly 5,000 square feet of lawn than remain. The new mower makes a cheerful ‘hum’ rather than the clatter of its gasoline-powered cousin. I find I don’t miss the old one at all.

April 8, 2010

The Wisteria That Was

I am continually accused by my wife of being too sentimental about plants. I can’t see throwing away a perfectly good clump of Hemerocallis just because it is being displaced by something more eye-catching. As a result, our ‘nursery bed’ overflows with azalea that became scraggly from too little sun, perennials that became overly aggressive and other, ragtag cultivars that outgrew their homes or failed to thrive where originally planted.

My wife has no such tolerance. “Compost it,” is her succinct, all-purpose advice for what to do with too much of anything.

And so we have tug-of-wars over plants. I’m forever pleading for another season for a given forlorn plant to finally establish itself, or to at least find another, more suitable location. Betty turns a gimlet eye to my softheartedness.

Which is why, when I came back from running an errand yesterday, I found a stump where our wisteria used to be.

Wisteria is, of course, a vine. But with proper nurturing and staking it can be turned into a tree, or at least a tree-shaped vine. We planted the wisteria circa 2003 and, for six years, it stood in a grassy area. (The photo at left shows the wisteria in its prime.)

Well, most of the time it ‘stood’.

In two memorable, back-to-back storms a few years back, the wisteria was blown over. We staked it after the first storm, a summer nor’easter. Two weeks later, a drenching monsoon from the southwest flattened it yet again in the opposite direction. Thereafter, the wisteria acquired an unflattering crutch in the form of a six-foot-high green metal stake.

Whether a function of that storm or some other malady, the wisteria failed to bloom the following spring. It put out dozens of ten-foot-long tendrils and a profusion of leaves, but nothing pretty to look at. Ditto the next year. I was, however, always of the opinion that all it needed was some tender loving care.

Last summer, the 150 square-foot section of lawn in which the wisteria stood was converted into a shrub bed. An andromeda, grown too large for its site as a foundation planting, was moved in. Weston Nurseries had a terrific sale on miniature kalmia (mountain laurel). Two low-growing ilex rescued years earlier from the town library where they had been salted to near extinction by overly-diligent town employees found a permanent home. Some nifty hostas from multiple sources rounded out the new bed.

Betty began eyeing the non-producing wisteria, noting that it ‘didn’t fit’ and that its ‘scale was all wrong’. I began my defense of the imperiled vine. “Give it another year.”

The discussion was made moot by a pruning saw.

We dug out the stump and, in its place, a third ilex, the most damaged of the three rescued shrubs but now fully healed, went into its spot.

Betty is, of course, correct. The wisteria was a failed experiment which ought to have ended years earlier. It was only my whining that kept it in place. Now, the vine and its stump lie alongside an amalanchier (shadbush) that never successfully transplanted, awaiting a dump run.

The great plantsman Allan Armitage says, “If you’re not killing plants, you’re not gardening.” Maybe there ought to be a corollary axiom: if you leave a plant in place just because it’s there, you’re also not gardening.

April 5, 2010

What a Difference a Day Makes

These three photos were taken just five days apart - the topmost one on April 2, the middle one on April 4 and the one at right on April 7.  In between the first and second photos, the temperature soared into the seventies.  As a result, bulbs popped open.  The blue hyacinths were little more than nubs in the first photo.  They're six inches high in the second and fully open in the third.  The chionodoxa were nothing but greens on April 2.  Two days later they're in their full white glory.  This was, alas, the final showing of the crocus, which while holding their own in the April 2 photo, wilted in the unexpected heat and are nothing but greens thereafter.

The strange appearance in the April 7 photo of a picea 'Sanders Blue' in front of the tetier is not a case of photoshop run amok.  The evergreen, still pot-bound but sunk into the ground to planting depth, is being 'tried out' in that spot.  New plants routinely get transitional sitings at multiple locales before finding a permanent home.

April 4, 2010

Uncovering the Rock Garden

We first viewed our home in Medfield eleven years ago in February. A thick blanket of snow covered everything in sight and all was peaceful. All the snow had melted when we moved in on April 1, 1999. We realized the grim humor of an April Fools Day closing when we walked around to the back of the property that morning. The melting snow and intervening rains had gouged a series of Grand-Canyon-sized gullies, carrying everything in sight down the hill behind our property toward the pond we abutted.

Thus began a civil engineering project that lasted five years and still requires periodic refinements. Several new downspouts were added to the inadequate number that had been installed with the house. A total of seven underground French drains were attached to those downspouts, allowing water to be carried a minimum of fifty feet from the house. Rock-lined trenches extended those drains into the surrounding woodlands.

The fifteen degree slope behind the house was deemed inherently unstable. After rejecting one contractor’s suggestion of a retaining wall, we set out to find a less ecologically intrusive solution. We wanted something that would hold the soil in place yet not interfere with our view of the pond. We wanted something that would provide visual interest from our back windows, deck and porch. We wanted something that would be low maintenance. We settled on a rock garden. And, as Meat Loaf opined, two out of three ain’t bad.

I was thinking of that history this weekend as we uncovered the rock garden from its winter slumber. There were just three, fair-sized rocks when we started. The rest – hundreds of massive stones - had to be brought in. There was little usable soil. Today it is rich and black with compost. The five gardens are interconnected by steps and paths, none of which existed ten years ago. The rock garden today is ninety feet long and forty feet deep at its apex. It contains more than a thousand bulbs, several dozen shrubs and more types of ground covers than I care to count.

Rock gardens attract oak leaves like a giant organic magnet. The top layer of leaves can be removed, gingerly, with a rake. The underlying leaves need to be removed by hand so as not to damage the plants, mosses, ground covers, low shrubs and emerging perennials that are showing green. My wife and I began on Saturday morning at nine. By three in the afternoon we had completed about seventy percent of the job. The balance was completed Sunday afternoon. Before it was over, I carried off three dozens bins of leaves to add to our overflowing compost piles.

The result of this labor is striking. On the Friday before we began uncovering the rock garden, the back of the property was a solid, undulating mass of brown. Even the basic contours of the garden were masked by the carpet of matted leaves. This morning, the rock garden is plainly visible, the intricate walls and terraces still in place despite a winter of frost heaves.  There were even surprises: blooming under the leaves were miniature iris and blue and yellow primrose.

There is as of yet not a lot of green (the accompanying photos are from last May and June). A few of the ground covers retained their color over the winter but the true explosion of yellows, blues, and reds will come in April and May. And, this weekend was just the first of several forays into the rock garden. An azalea has grown too large for its allotted space and needs to be moved – a massive undertaking. The last of the wooden pegs that once held steps in place need to be replaced by steel rods. And, there is a creeping ajuga that needs to be eradicated before it makes the leap from ‘nuisance’ to ‘serious problem’.
But those are issues for another weekend. For now, there is the contentment of a spring chore crossed off.

April 3, 2010

Getting Excited About the Little Things

The snow had not even completely melted outside my front door a few weeks back when a hellebore defiantly thrust up first one flower, then two. Now, there are several hellebores blooming prolifically. Next to one of those plants, a clutch of tiny tete-a-tete daffodils preen in the afternoon light.

Welcome to early spring in New England, when we get excited about the little things.

Ours is a feast and famine region. From the end of October until the day that first hellebore emerged, there were no flowers to look at outside my window. The world was largely brown: a brown lawn, brown oak leaves and brown tree trunks. Pretty in its own way? Not really. Especially when you see this unchanging landscape day after day.

Two months from now, there will be so much color that even the most jaded among us will be overwhelmed. From late spring through the changing of the leaves is our time to feast on the palette given us by Mother Nature.

Now – the beginning of April – is when we see the first hints of what is to come. There is a bed at the front of my property. It’s called ‘Manhattan’ because its shape is somewhat reminiscent of that island. Driving by, there’s little to attract the eye but, on foot, the site is abuzz with activity. Hundreds of crocus have bloomed purple and the short perennial blue grasses and yellow-striped yuccas have un-flattened themselves and now look more dignified. This bed will be royal purple with hyacinths in a few weeks and, already, the dark green leaves of those perennials are showing their spikes. One the western edge of Manhattan, alliums have sent up shoots to capture sunlight. To the rear of the bed, daffodils are nearing bloom and, in front of them, the early daylily greens have appeared from nowhere, a pale green fuzz that grows an inch a day.

All this from one bed.

In another bed, the lime-green emergent flower stalks of three alien-appearing petasites (bog rhubarb) have appeared, seemingly overnight. In a month, their shiny, yellow-spotted leaves will share this space with an entire rogue’s gallery of damp-ground-loving plants. For now, these six-in-high sentinels are all that mark the site.

These are the signs that winter is in full retreat. I’ve been around here long enough to know that we don’t get through April unscathed; that sometime between now and when the lilacs bloom, there will likely be at one more snowfall. But I’m taking great pleasure in these small harbingers of more colorful days ahead.