Friday, April 24, 2009

EXCAVATING FOR SHRUBS

The day is barely halfway gone and I’m I’m already thoroughly exhausted…beat…whipped…dang near killed. Why? Because I’ve spent the morning planting five shrubs. That is correct…five. Two forsythia, two spirea, and a lilac. The little bushes came in 8-inch pots. So I dug holes 20-inches deep and 16-inches across. And you’re right—it doesn't sound like much to have accomplished. Shouldn’t be all that much work. Any fool with a spade and a spare hour ought to be able to dig a few modest holes and insert a plant in each, right? Well…not always. These particular five holes required five hours to dig. That's right: FIVE HOURS! And no, I'm not the laziest, slowest, most incapable hole-digger on planet earth. The digging of holes is a different task entirely when you live on land which was once a low island. Land which was historically subject to flooding whenever the adjacent river rose to its over-the-banks stage. Land subsequently built up over the last century by five generations of stonemasons whose family owned the property and who, having access to a virtually limitless supply of limestone, simply piled load after load of stones and rubble from their various construction sites, and every so often added countless layers of soil—though often thin, and running the gamut from clay to gravely subsoil to black loam. At some point the island ceased being an island, the narrow channel separating it from the east bank having also been filled in with stone and dirt. And when they'd increased the former island's height by several feet, thereby deeming it sufficiently if precariously safe from all but the worst floods, they built the cottage, in 1914, of stone, naturally, with walls 17-inches thick, wherein I now happily abide. The upside is a home of peace and solitude. A house sporting such thick stone walls is nearly soundproof; conversations between even adjacent rooms must be carried on at a shout. The insurance company loves a solid stone building and awards a lower rate because it is so fireproof. Moreover, should the Shawnee Nation ever decide to reclaim its ancient hunting grounds, or Somali pirates move their base of operations to the river which flows past the cottage's front, the house might act as a serviceable fort. As an added bonus, the river is literally at my doorstep. If I want, I can catch a smallmouth bass without leaving the porch. Plus there are lots of stately old sycamores and other trees to provide plenty of shade from Ohio's summer sun, and everything from blue herons to beaver, hummingbirds to hawks to keep life interesting. The downside, admittedly minor unless you have decided to put a certain bulb, flower, shrub, or tree right over there, is that you never know if such a feat is actually possible until you poke the tip of your shovel into the earth. If it slips in without fuss, you cross your fingers and hope the following shovel's worth will do the same—as will all the shovel-probings thereafter. Sometimes they actually do. Even a blind hog finds an acorn occasionally. But more often—make that usually!—the shovel clunks on attempted insertion. This may occur at a depth of six inches or two. You hear as well as feel it. Cautiously you move the tip of the blade aside a few inches and try again. Should your shovel-tip telegraph another clunk, you might move again. But three clunks in a row definitely calls for consideration. Do you want to scratch off the thin sheath of earth to see if you've hit a few large gravels, some larger stones, or a block of limestone the size of a refrigerator…or do you simply want to give up and find another spot? Mostly I keep at it for awhile, bull-headedness being a family trait and a key part of my personality. I shovel-explore this way and that. Work my way through layers of gravel. Coax out fist-sized rocks. Employ the crowbar to pry out larger stones. In fact, the crowbar is regularly my tool of choice for excavating many such holes. I kneel on a comfortable pad—an old shower mat, rolled—beside the intended hole site, whereupon I attempt to spud my way, inch-by-inch, stone-by-stone, into the ground, scooping out the rubble with my hands. It's like spudding holes in a frozen lake in order to go ice fishing, except harder, more jarring to the arms, and lacking the reward of a few bluegill, walleye or lake trout at the end. Plus you sweat instead of shiver. After about an hour of this, if you're fortunate and haven't encountered an impassable block of limestone, you have a hole of sufficient depth and dimension to hold a shrub from an 8-inch pot. Should your luck hold throughout the coming months, the planted shrub might actually live, possibly even thrive. At any rate, you will have done your part—given time, sweat, sometimes blood, and a lot of musclepower, added good transplanting soil and a dab of fertilizer, tamped lightly, watered thoroughly, mulched. You've also whispered a few words of encouragement to the new plant, advising it to buck up and make the best of things, while promising protection from squirrels, rabbits, deer, mice, grubs, and all manner of insect pestilence, while vowing to feed, water, and nurture to the best of your abilities. On a good day hereabouts, the scenario for digging five holes and making the pot-to-earth transfer—factoring in the usual ratio of only one-in-five holes proving to be located in an all, or almost-all, soil situation, and thus requiring no more time and effort to dig than any normal hole—makes the completion of five holes in five hours right on schedule. Maybe even ahead, considering the hole for a rosebush I dug last year that required nearly a week. Or that other hole I abandoned after almost as long, because it took a while to outline the mammoth rock six inches below the surface, which lay recumbent as the gravestone covering the tomb of a Druid giant, and proved thoroughly immovable, regardless of levers, fulcrums, and all manner of loud imprecations. Which is why I'm quite pleased with the morning’s effort—and why I'm dreading the four additional shrubs yet to go. And by the way, the yellow tulip whose close -up portrait graces this posting came hidden in a load of dirt I spread along the foundation wall year-before last. Besides, bulbs for crocus, daffodil, and the like seldom require more than half-an-hour apiece to plant…unless you hit a stone and need to excavate.

16 comments:

KGMom said...

Hmmm--I think I would opt for inserting said shrubs into deep planter pots.
Is there such a thing as a stone detector? Rather like a metal detector, only for stones?
Your tale puts me in mind of the first house my husband and I bought. The housing development had been built by U.S. Steel in the early 1960s. What we didn't figure was that they would have used steel for everything. Whatever you might ordinarily use wood for, these builders used steel. Normally, when you want to hang something, you tap along the wall until you find the stud. Not so in this house--you tapped, then avoided the stud.
Well, you've earned your rest. Put your feet up, get a tumbler of your favorite libation, and contemplate the day.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

I don't think you can grow trees and bushes in planter pots—well, besides bonsai. Or maybe you can if the planter pot is big enough.

But I remain forthrightly bullheaded in the face of logic and good advice. The really kicker to today's tale is that I've messed up my elbow…it is hurting like the dickens. And I'm not at all sure I can drink those libations left-handed.

Re. that steel-framed house, you could probably have hung the lighter stuff via magnets, depending on the thickness of the wall's covering and the magnet's strength. I use those magnets with a hook on 'em (handy for hanging things such as potholders on the side of a kitchen stove) to string my Christmas lights over outside window and door lintels, as they're made from steel.

Gail said...

Hi Grizz-

I am pouring you a glass of chilled chardonnay to kind of "take the edge off" for ya! :-) Whew!

Our lilac bush, well now it's a tree - grew about 15 feet in just a few years, and our 'pussy-willow' has sprawled out in every direction - we had to move a bunch of daisies because they became an army! :-)


Meanwhile - I had visions of you poking and fussing and heaving and forging on - and I must say, I laughed heartily - with all kind respect, of course. :-) , heehee..... I applaud your diligence.

Keep on keepin' on big guy!

Love Gail
peace.....

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

The chardonnay sounds lovely—even if I can't (and I'm not kidding) hoist it with my right arm. Having today injured myself with unaccustomed manual labor, I must temporarily struggle along as a lefty.

Funny you should say, but I have indeed been back out for round two…only this time with tape measure laying out some planter beds for the rear of the cottage.
I'd actually thought I might make a little start on constructing the beds this afternoon, rather than tackling another hole—but I've apparently used up my day's allotment of energy, period.

So I'm getting ready to fix up a salad for supper, kick back on the deck, and help the sunset do its thing.

It was an unbelievable 83 degrees here today!Tomorrow is supposed to be more of the same. And providing my arm doesn't fall off during the night, I'll be out there "poking and fussing and heaving and forging on." Youbetcha!

Jain said...

Oh, I moved some bee balm around the yard this very evening so I know rocky soil quite well! They were mere flowers so only required a spade or so of dirt but I do know the screech of steel on stone.

I’ve always been fascinated by stone houses--psychological stability, permanence, with some history, yes? Would love to see a piece of wall some time.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

I'll tell you how serious it is here sometimes when it comes to planting…the fall of the year I moved in (2006) I bought several hundred daffodil and crocus bulbs to plant around. I especially wanted to put some clumps on a little rise of ground that's at the far side of the "front" yard. Now you don't have to put these bulbs in very deep—but at least half the spots I chose were impossible because I couldn't make a two-inch deep hole!

The second fall—more bulbs—was a repeat, except I failed at different locations. But I also came up with an alternate technique: where there's a bit of a slope to the ground, I make a half-circle of stones, with the open ends toward the slope. This crescent may be a foot wide or three feet. Regardless, I scrape away any covering grass and fill the sort of terraced "dish" with soil—and plant my bulbs therein. Works great with bulbs and plants which don't require too deep a hole. And looks good too, I think—like little natural outcrop pockets.

Re. a shot or two of the stone exterior of the cottage, I can do that. I'll do a few shots and write something. Might wait until I paint the trim, though. When I moved in the cottage came with the little bit of wood along the eaves and the upper half of the rear end painted a sort of warm tan, which didn't look too bad against the light-gray cut blocks of Indiana limestone. I thought a brown would look better—though I usually don't like dark (heavier) colors above lighter hues. But I thought it would be more in keeping with the cottage/cabin-in-the-woods look. And I figured to do it after I got some of the more needy projects done.

Unfortunately, that original warm-tan has faded and changed to a shade decidedly more pink—not at all a fitting color for a virile, hair-on-chest, eat-rare-steak, spit-in-the-fire writer/fisherman. Would John Wayne live in a pink-trimmed house? So give me a few weeks—though I may just shoot the shots anyway and you can think what you will. But if you want to see stone, I'll show you stone!

Jain said...

The semi circles of stone and flowers sound pretty. Whether pink or brown (or before and after!), I'll look forward to seeing the stone house.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

They are.

Will do.

And I have warblers!

Gail said...

hi grizz-

I noticed you didn't post my last comment. :-( Something I said? Didn't say? Huh.

Gail

The Weaver of Grass said...

Scribe - I just hope those five shrubs know the trouble you have gone to on their behalf, and give you the very best flowers as a thank-you.
You make your surroundings sound so idyllic - if I lived there I would never want to stray far off the porch.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

I have no idea where your comment went, but I assure you I've posted each and every one received. But to be doubly sure (I am, after all, middle-age, male, and more than capable of screwing things up from time to time) I just went back and checked my email copies of incoming and outgoing comments; the last comment I have from you is the one where you mentioned chardonnay…which I posted and answered.

Rest assured—I never received a comment from you comment after that one. You have not been rejected. So please comment again. I'm not upset, angry, offended, or anything else at you…just missing a comment.

Gail said...

Phew. :-)


Thanks for taking the tiome to let me know.

Phew. :-)

I know I harassed you a bit, saying "I have a place set for you at my place....." I also told you to take Advil and use ice and or heat on your arm, and that if need be, you could drink your chardonnay through a straw.


Phew. :-)


OkAy.

Phew. :-)

Love Gail
peaxce.....

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

I hope they appreciate me, too…although the rhododendrons I've put out over the years (I'm think there's now been 6) have been anything but appreciative—up and dying, as it were, or stunting and turning yellow-green.

Normally, I wouldn't go so far as to call this place idyllic…although today, warm and bright sun, the sky a high deep blue, the river almost turquoise, with ducks and geese and birds of all description about, singing loudly, spring just greening up to beat the band, and not a single complaint to be made or a fault found with anything—well, it is pretty close to idyllic, I reckon. And I didn't want to get off the porch…and for more time than I care to confess, didn't!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

No pill but I did have a glass of wine (Chablis) and that salad. And thanks…I'll know where to come for a meal if I get too gimpy!

Now quit worrying!

Gail said...

okay - now I know this is really strange Grizz. Guess what my nic-name is since I was 10 when I broke my ankle? C'mom, guess!!


Yup, "Gimpy" My Dad said I 'gimped', not 'limped' and thus the name.:-)

And, you can come over anytime, for a meal and some wine. for sure. However, I was referring to you telling me I could harass you when I didn't see you via a comment on my blog. !!!!!

SO I have a place set for you there too. Phew. :-)

Love Gail
peace

"Gimpy"

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

I've always heard "gimp," and took it to be more than a mere limp, getting into attitude and demeanor. Kinda like whining around without the actual noise and walking all feeble, as in the "poor old me I hurt my foot/leg/ankle." When I used to fall off horses and bulls, I gimped for all I was worth. Maybe your Dad knew a gimper when he saw one… :-)

I intend to visit your blog regularly—just haven't done much blogging at all today other than answer comments. Work work work…gimp gimp gimp.