May 23, 2014

The Mystery of the Plant Tags

The trench for the hoses has
dug and the hose laid in the
trench.  All that remains is
to cover the trench... and find
the plant markers
Every Spring about this time, I lay the soaker hoses for our hosta garden. There's a narrow window of time when all the hostas have emerged, but are not so large that I can't wend two hoses close enough to each hosta's roots to provide water for the inevitable summer dry spells.

It's a time-consuming process because the hoses are buried about an inch into the soil and mulch rather than just placed along the surface.  And, to answer the inevitable question, the hoses are taken up each fall because they'd rot after a year or two if they were left in the ground over the winter.  The hoses I buried yesterday are in their tenth season.  So, yes, it's worth a morning's labor to both make the hosta garden look great and to exercise some Yankee frugality by not having to replace $60 worth of hoses.

 But that's not the purpose of this essay.  Rather, I write this morning to wonder why on earth the animals in the woods around our property find our plant tags so fascinating.  You see, yesterday I engaged in not one but two spring rituals.  The first was the burying of the soaker hoses.  The second was the annual matching of hosta plant markers with the shoots coming out of the ground.

Our hosta walk in season.
Fact: No one has walked in the hosta garden since late October when our final task of the season in that part of the property was to firmly push the steel and aluminum markers into the soil next to the remnants of the plants. We were conscientious in our efforts because we have a lot of different hostas in our garden – more than a hundred named varieties. Each plant has a marker and each marker has one of those labels with the variety printed out on clear plastic tape. (I know what you’re thinking: I need a hobby. Well, this is my hobby.)

Exactly why we go to the trouble of making labels is unclear, except that now, when we visit a nursery, we can resist buying a hosta ‘Lakeside Cupcake’ because we already have one. We know we have one because we made a label for one last year. Except unless we think what we have back at home is ‘Lakeside Cupid’s Cup’ or ‘Lakeside Cup Up’. Which means we may well go home with the hosta anyway because it’s so darn cute.

This is what our tags are
supposed to look like.
Fact: Back in October, every hosta marker was in exactly the right spot. Fact: For much of this past winter, the hosta garden was under two or more feet of snow. So, please explain to me why, yesterday morning, there were dozens of plant markers lying loose in the hosta beds?

Betty says the rational explanation is that the ground freezes and thaws and pushes the markers out of the ground. I could buy that theory if the markers were adjacent to the plants to which they belong. I happen to know for a fact, though, that hosta ‘Mohegan’ is a giant brute of a plant that hugs the foundation of the house (and may yet push the house out of the way in order to accommodate its version of Manifest Destiny). Why, then, is the marker for hosta ‘Mohegan’ in among the ones for the cute little miniatures twenty feet away? And why is there a pile of five markers?

Personally, I blame the squirrels and the raccoons. (“Hey, neat plant marker. I think I’ll pull it out and put it in this pile.”) More likely, knowing the raccoons in our neighborhood, the markers are used in lieu of poker chips. (“I see your ‘Francee’ and raise you a ‘Kabitan’ and a ‘Whirlwind’.) That might explain the piles of them – raccoons abandoning poker night when they’re called home for dinner and to do their homework. Their homework being their endless but fruitless efforts to break into our composter.

We have not created a 'Golden
Tiara' tag in probably ten
years.  Yet one turned up in
the hosta walk yesterday.
There are also hosta markers that have either lost that clear plastic label over the course of the winter or – and this is the scary part – returned to our garden from some parallel universe. Once upon a time (when we had only twenty or so named hostas), we were content to identify our cultivars with a black pen on a metal tag. I would swear, though, on a thousand-page Hostas A-Z reference tome that every single marker has been ‘upgraded’ to clear plastic tape during the past two years.

Why, then, do I have two warped and mangled handwritten tags for hosta ‘Golden Tiara’? Betty ejected all of the ‘Golden Tiaras’ from the formal hosta garden four or five years ago because they multiply like rabbits and she hasn’t bothered to make a tag for one in the better part of a decade. Where did these tags come from?

Once again, Betty’s rational explanation is frost heaves. The tags were buried in the soil. The ground froze and thawed and, one day, belched up a ‘Golden Tiara’ tag or two. I like the parallel universe theory a lot better.

With the hoses now safely buried, my task now is to dig out our diagrams of the hosta beds and match loose tags with last known locations of plants. Now that’s what I call a spring ritual.

May 4, 2014

What I Did for Love

A neighbor took down a Norway maple last week.  Norway maples, for those who do not carefully follow environmental issues, is one of worst trees ever foisted on New Englanders.  For much of the second half of the 20th century it was a ‘developer’s tree’; a fast growing specimen that could go from a ‘whip’ to a thirty-foot behemoth in under ten years.  And it was a maple!  And Norwegian!

The remains of a Norway maple
Acer platanoides may be - however technically - a maple, although its native range runs more to Bulgaria and Russia than Scandanavia.  The ‘Norway’ name was appended to the tree in the 1950s to class it up a bit.  Norway maples are variously described as a ‘weed' tree, a ‘rat’ tree, and ‘trash’, and all for good reasons.  It has an unbelievably dense root system that chokes out anything around it.  It is a voracious consumer of water.  Its limbs can come crashing down for no particular reason other than to annoy you and put a dent in your car.  And don’t ever think about tapping it for maple syrup.  The sugar content is virtually non-existent and the sap is milky.

The sale of Norway maples is illegal in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and other northeastern states rightly consider it invasive.  Unfortunately, those trees planted before the ban went into place can remain.  We took down the two Acer platanoides that were on our property (planted by the developer, naturally) years ago.  Betty gnashes her teeth as we drive down our street where half a dozen specimens remain.

But the sound of a chipper caught our attention and so I walked up the street to find a landscaper feeding the last limbs into the maw of a large, noisy machine.

The wood chips define a path between
two beds at the front of our property.
“Only thing a tree like that is good for,” I said, watching the chips fly into the back of a dump truck.

The landscaper nodded his agreement.  “I take out a couple of dozen of these every spring,” he said.  “Good riddance.”

Then came the fateful question.  “Got any plans for the chips?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “Take ‘em back to the lot, I guess.”

“I’ll take them,” I said, trying to sound like I did this three or four times a day.  “I live just up the street.”  I threw my thumb over my shoulder.

The landscaper squinted at me.  “Fifteen minutes,” he said.  “But you got to take the logs, too.”

I knew better than to bargain further.  I was about to get ten cubic yards of wood chips for free.  Of course, I was doing the landscaper a favor: most places where landscaping debris can be ‘tipped’ want a fee for doing so.  Perhaps these would have ‘gone back to the yard’.  But his readiness to give them to me indicates they were headed for a landfill.

25 cartloads went to create this
border behind one of
our perennial beds.
At this point we need to back up a few minutes and a few paragraphs to the point where I said that the sound of a chipper caught “our” attention.  That statement is true.  Both Betty and I heard it.  But, left to my own devices, I would have ignored the sound until it went away.  You see, getting a load of chips or mulch or anything like that means hard work lies ahead.  It isn’t that I avoid difficult projects; I just don’t go out of my way to start them.

But when we heard the chipper, it was Betty who said, “Why don’t you go up and see if it’s something we could use?”

These are the things we do for love.  We go bargain for ten cubic yards of wood chips knowing that we will be the one who actually moves them.  And then down Motrin by the handful.

Fifteen minutes later the dump truck rumbled down the cul-de-sac and I waved in into an area just outside of our driveway.  It was, in fact, six yards of chips and four cubic yards of logs.  I smiled as the truck pulled away.  It was one of those ‘bargains with a curveball’:  mulch I could use but logs that will need to age two to three years before they’re useful.

It took just three days to disperse the chips.  I loaded them into wheelbarrows and carts and dumped them around the woodland edges and paths on our property where Betty directed.  There, she spread them several inches thick to hold down weeds and define borders.  In the process I re-awakened arm and back muscles that that taken the winter off (except for shoveling snow).  The morning after my first day (seventeen loads) I was so sore I could hardly stand.  The morning after the second day (twenty-five loads), I took a couple of Motrin and shrugged it off.  At the third day (ten loads plus moving and stacking two dozen logs), I enjoyed a glass of Scotch.

The wood mulch will keep down
the weeds in this area of the
garden.  A fitting use for a 'weed' tree.
I sometime think we fear getting into projects more than we ache from doing them.  In the next week or so, we’ll need to order up ten-plus cubic yards of brown mulch for our multiple beds.  Before I took on the wood chip project, I had been dreading ordering the mulch.  It was a subject I simply would not bring up.  Now, with my arms starting to get back into shape, it has moved into the realm of ‘not a big deal’.

It’s so much not a big deal that, today, I casually asked Betty how soon we were likely to order the mulch and how many yards it would likely take.

That’s what I call progress.  It’s also what I call love of gardening and of those whom we work alongside as we garden.