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.