November 16, 2016

Worldly Possessions

Our over-wintering plants in their
home for the next four or five months
Each year in late October or early November, Betty and I go through an autumn ritual called ‘turning over the garage’.  It’s a grueling, day-long task that starts with pulling apart upwards of two dozen large, terra cotta summer containers, washing and disinfecting those containers, making a sunny space for the plants we’ll over-winter in the garage, and switching around ‘gardening stuff’ (e.g. carts and wheelbarrows) to make ‘winter stuff’ (e.g.,  our snow blower) readily accessible.
We also take everything out of the garage, spread it out over our driveway, and look at each item with a jaundiced eye.  Do we still have use for this?  Are we ever going to use that again?  Is this beyond repair?  When we moved out of Wild Holly Lane (with its three-car garage) and into our new home (two-and-a-half-cars wide), we threw away a lot of stuff, but kept some questionable things that we thought might prove useful.
The rototiller awaits its fate
Well, at the end of our first full season in our new home, the jury is back with a unanimous verdict. 
We no longer have a use for a rototiller.  It served us faithfully back in the eighties and we kept it around like some superannuated family retainer, carting it from Massachusetts to Connecticut to Virginia and back to Massachusetts.  Despite a $200 overhaul, our old Troy-Bilt was no match for the rocky ‘builder’s crud’ at our new home site; and now, with that crud replaced at great expense by new screened loam, a simple shovel will suffice to open planting areas.  However, a notice on a Facebook ‘swap meet’ page has thus far failed to find a taker. Until it does, our venerable rototiller resides in an obliging neighbor’s shed.
Our former clematis
at our former house.
Note the lattice.
But the Troy-Bilt is a success story, relatively speaking.  You see, it takes two votes to oust something from the garage.  Take, for example, three pieces of plastic latticework.  For several years, they provided support for an autumn clematis that climbed twenty feet up the side of our former house and spread six feet wide.  The emphasis in the previous sentence should be on the word, ‘former’. We no longer live there and the clematis most definitely stayed behind.  Why do we still need pieces of lattice cut to fit a plant at a house we left behind?  Betty says we may well again have a climbing vine or hydrangea, and the lattice might come in handy.  And, besides, it stacks neatly against a wall and takes up almost no space.
The lattice stayed.
Our blade-less hoe
earned a reprieve
because it is useful
to swab out barrels
Over the summer, the blade broke off from the handle of one of our hoes.  It proved impossible to re-attach the blade but we kept the sturdy, six-foot-long handle because it gave us an interesting hook that might prove useful in, say, pulling down tall branches that needed to be trimmed.  Well, a summer and fall have come and gone, and there was never a time that such a tool was even remotely required.  We both agreed that, however handsome and intriguing was our decapitated hoe, its time was past.  The handle actually went into our car and made a trip to the transfer station.  But, somehow, it did not get thrown away.  It came home with us.  Then, that very afternoon, I was attempting to swab out the interior of our now-emptied rain barrels with a bleach-soaked rag.  I needed some kind of a long pole with a hook at the end to thoroughly scrub the walls and base of the barrels…
The headless hoe is back in the garage.
The French drain sample.  Coming
soon to a flower show near you?
There is no grace-saving employment, however, for an eighteen-inch long sample of an innovative prefabricated French-drain: a perforated-pipe-cum-packing-peanuts-plus-netting contraption.  Betty scored the sample at a trade show two years ago.  We knew we would need subterranean drains to carry off rainwater from our gutters to the wetlands behind our new home.  The salesman’s pitch was this: rather than digging a foot-deep trench, filling it part way with rock, laying in a drain pipe, then complete the filling of the trench with more rock and covering with topsoil; two steps could be eliminated.  Just dig the trench, lay in the pipe-and-peanut contraption, and cover with soil. 
A 40-foot drain I dug in the
back of our property.  The
pipe cost less than $40.  The
French drain would have
cost $250.
Well, we have six such drain fields, the longest of which stretches forty feet.  But when I went to price this labor-saving prefabricated system, I discovered that a 25-foot-section of plain, perforated four-inch plastic pipe is less than $20 while an eight-foot length of prefabricated French drain is fifty dollars.  And I didn’t really need the drain feature; having most of the water make it to the wetlands was beneficial.  Multiply that cost differential times the roughly eighteen, eight-foot sections that we would need install, and the premium quickly soared to more than $700.  Such an investment made sense only if someone was paying a work crew by the hour.  I work for love.  I made my case to Betty that the drains are already in place and the sample is redundant.  She was adamant.  It may come in useful someday.  Possibly in a highly creative abstract floral design.
The French drain is still in the garage.
Without grass, my cherished British
edging tool has no purpose.  But it
isn't going away...
And then there is the lawn edger.  I fell in love with this tool a decade ago on a trip to England, came home and located one via my local hardware store’s specialty catalog, and used the tool religiously thereafter.  Unfortunately, “thereafter” ended when we moved to our new home.  There is no lawn to be edged.  By design, there is not a blade of grass on the property, nor will there ever be.  My beloved tool has no place in this New Horticultural Order.  But will I part with it?  Not a chance.  It is a family heirloom and it will be removed only when it is pried from my cold, dead hands.
It, too, is still in the garage.

There is a list of other gegaws and gimcracks that will populate our garage for another season, but you get the idea.  I will even readily confess that I am more sentimental about keeping things than is Betty.  There is, after all, room.  Room, in this case, for things where possession is less a function of logic than of human nature.

November 1, 2016

Dig the Holes and Pass the Ibuprofen

Readers of this blog may remember that last year at this time, I was ruing my decision to be wildly enthusiastic about the spring bulbs my wife showed me in various catalogs.  The result of my praise of her esthetic sense was to witness the delivery of what turned out to be 1800 bulbs, primarily hyacinths and daffodils.  All had to be planted within a narrow time window.  Much ibuprofen was consumed in the process.
Yes, the hyacinth border was
beautiful, but too short.
Most people would assume that 1800 bulbs would be sufficient to make a garden beautiful for years to come.  My wife is not ‘most people’.  Betty carefully observed and made notes as those bulbs made their appearance this spring.  The hyacinth border along the driveway covered just half its length.  A planned ‘river’ of geraniums and hyacinths was just fifteen feet long.  Entire areas of the front of our garden contained nary a spring bloom.  Our back garden had just a few pods of daffodils.
And so Betty made a new spring bulb list.  Because it mostly was just ‘small bulbs’, she did not offer me the same level of consultation (last year, to her credit, she said at one point, “You know, this is getting to be a pretty big bulb order.”).  This year she, well, just placed the order.
While the boxes were a
little smaller, we still had
duffel bags full of bulbs
Last year, I was greeted in my driveway in late October by three enormous crates of bulbs and a UPS driver swearing vengeance against my entire family tree.  This year, just two, somewhat smaller boxes arrived.  How many bulbs could possibly be in them?
It was exactly 1650 bulbs.
Betty offered me this solace: “All you have to do is dig the holes.  I have to plant them.”
Now the hyacinth border
is being extended
to the street.
Which, factually is exactly the case.  Except that “digging the holes” means removing the mulch from an area that might be six or eight square feet.  The mulch goes into a container.  Then I excavate all of the soil from that area to a specified depth.  The soil goes into additional containers (so as not to risk mixing soil and mulch), after which I break up the soil for better aeration and remove rocks.  And kill any grubs.  And rescue any earthworms.  And then ensure that there is nice, loose soil at the bottom of the hole which the bulb can snuggle into.  Each area can easily take an hour.
These daffodils needed to be
planted 8".  It's just as much
effort to dig down 5".
Betty offered more soothing words.  “They’re all small bulbs,” she said.  “They can be planted more tightly than the last ones,” she averred.  “None of these have to be planted eight inches deep like the daffodils.”
Those, too, are true statements.  Or, at least true as far as the statement went.  No, the new crop of bulbs did not have to be planted to a depth of eight inches.  ‘Just’ five inches.  What percent of the effort is required to dig out a section of the garden to five inches?  Almost exactly as much as eight inches.  You can take my word for it.  Further, because the garden was new last year, much of the digging was through virgin, never-planted areas.  This year, many of the new bulb pods wrap around now-established shrubs and perennials. 
The geranium and hyacinth
'river' will now stretch 30'
All of that said, 1,350 bulbs have been planted during the past two weeks.  There is a long, serpentine sweep of hyacinths above a rock wall that should look splendid next spring.  That river of geraniums and hyacinths is now 30 feet long with twin trenches of a special white-capped blue hyacinth.  The driveway border now sweeps 75 feet down to the street and some leftover bulbs have colonized the perennial border on the other side of the driveway.  Three pods of an unusual, native ‘nodding onion’ will now grace a sunny area adjacent to our ‘Burgundy Hearts’ redbud.  And, from the kitchen window will be visible a long sweep of still more hyacinths in the rear garden.

These are the ipheion flowers
we'll see next spring
Where will those last three hundred bulbs go?  They’re scilla and ipheion (which only need to be planted three inches deep!), and Betty plans to walk the property today to determine where they’ll make the highest impact.  The impressive part is that she’ll actually find an area that doesn’t already have bulbs planted under it.  The even more impressive part is that my kidneys will still function after taking all that ibuprofen.