Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An Earth-Day Journal

Another Earth Day rolls around though it was yesterday, in a warm sunny lull between a rainy Monday and a stormy Tuesday afternoon, I managed to plant some seeds and pot up some pachysandra and euonymous that I’d been rooting over the winter. The few strands I’d trimmed off the euonymous last fall, a low bushy, vine-like version of the plant, is now all I have left after the deer, ignoring the fact it was touted as being “deer-proof,” nibbled it to the ground where it has yet to resprout. The forsythia are fading, the leaves now adding a tinge of lemony green to the once solid golden mounds in my back yard. The neighbor’s magnolia tree whose scent made it almost pleasant to walk to the mailbox to pick up my junk-mail, has passed its prime, shedding its thick milky-white petals onto brown-turning heaps on the grass.

With the milder weather, it’s good to see plants I had been afraid had died over the winter were actually showing signs of life. The clematis out front is already full of leaves and dozens of buds (usually it has 10-15 flowers on it; last spring it had 104) but the three varieties of wild milkweed I’d planted to be a refuge for monarch butterflies had so far not materialized. The oak-leaf hydrangea I planted last fall has managed to survive, pinkish-red nubbins that will gradually unfurl into these huge leaves.

In the back, the white bleeding heart was one of the first to emerge (I quickly put a peach-basket over it so it wouldn’t becomes someone’s lunch) and now the astilbe which looked like it had died last fall is sending up spindly red shoots. The peonies are back, mostly in places where they won’t do well any more. When they were planted 50 years ago, it was sunny but now the dogwood overshadows everything and they will get little sunlight once its leaves come out, including the one surviving deep red one, part of the original stock my mother had brought from her mother’s first house where it was planted in 1919 (it didn’t bloom last year, but I’m afraid to move it to a better spot for fear of killing it outright).

The “beauty berry” bush, with its iridescent purple berries that the birds love, so far shows no signs of rejuvenation. The two different kind of hosta and the “lamb’s ear” I’d planted near it, however, seem to be on the verge of life. It depends how tempting they look in Nature’s Cafeteria in this land where the deer and the jackalope play...

It’s been an on-going challenge once the deer nibbled down the epimeium after it started sprouting. Planting seeds in starter-pots seems pointless to me but at least if they germinate, they have a better chance of making it to seedlings than if I planted them directly into the ground. Last year’s lush carpet of pre-pubescent alyssum and impatiens were mowed down by rabbits in less time than time-lapse photography could’ve recorded their sprouting. Then I bought plugs of already grown plants to plant there instead: they lasted a day.

I joked about using lady-bugs to control aphids and praying mantises to control grasshoppers, but I’m not sure what I would use to control the squirrels, rabbits and deer. Perhaps a puma but then what would I use to control the puma population? Fire-arms do not strike me as a terribly green solution, regardless of the legality of firing them in my own back-yard.

The other night, sitting in the darkened living room with the drapes closed after watching the 11pm news (with some report of another escaped criminal a county away), I heard the scrape of a porch chair pushed back against the picture window and wondered if I really wanted to open the drape to see what was there. I’ll assume it was rabbits frolicking on the porch who bumped against it or maybe a deer coming up to see if the drive-through window was open ("Got any house-plants in there?").

This morning I looked out to see pile of – let’s assume – rabbit-barf on the porch with the remains of what can only have been an iris once growing twenty feet away. Fortunately, there were many shoots to choose from, so this was less devastating than it might have been had it been the lone white bleeding heart recently freed from its peach-basket protection. I’m wondering if I should clean up the barf or move it over closer to the iris bed to remind them, “see, this is what this plant makes you do.” But like little children they’ll probably have to check it out one more time, at least, to see if it does it again.

All of the trees in my yard were planted within the first year my parents had built this house. In fact, the biggest silver maples in the very back had been saplings on the field when we bought it and, unfortunately, my mother decided we should try to keep them – free trees, you know. Unfortunately, there are now three other clumps of silver maples across the yard and we have dealt with this nemesis of “whirrly-gig” propeller seeds in the spring and the copious quantities of leaves in the fall clogging up rain-gutters. I’m wondering how much it would cost to take them out – they’re all huge – especially now that dead branches are constantly falling into the yard: one three-foot branch was impaled in the grass, sticking almost straight up most of the winter (this photo, right, was taken in February, looking toward the parent clump that in 1959 had been a small sapling).

But then the yard would seem so much less without trees there. I had joked when I was a kid and had to mow the grass (about 3/4s of an acre was huge to a teen-ager even on a riding mower) that if I ever lived here in the future, I would plant nothing BUT trees until it killed all the grass. So it seems odd now to be thinking about removing trees...

Considering the Japanese Maple is turning 50 (we were told it might live 25-30 years) and the two dogwoods have also lived well past their standard shelf-life, I wonder what to plant in readiness? At my age, with all due apologies to Joyce Kilmer, I would probably never see full-grown trees there again.

Then there are the forsythia which originally came from a bush we’d been given by my father’s mother. Most nursery-bred forsythia seem to be sterile and don’t spread, making nice little accent shrubs along the house or round bushes in the middle of the yard. This one, probably a forest-born weed that had been growing too close to their back door, soon took over our back yard. That first summer, we planted it in what was then the bare eastern corner at the back of the house. Somehow it started growing in the northeast corner of the yard. Trimming it one fall, Mother kept a bunch of branches cut into three foot lengths, for some reason, stacked in the garage for several years before she thought they would make great stakes in the vegetable garden she was going to put in in the northwest corner of the yard, growing peppers and tomatoes and, alas, zucchini.

I think this lasted three or four summers before the amount of work it took to raise them far outweighed the frustration of either eating all the zucchini or trying to give them away. She would forget to harvest them for a few days only to find they had developed into potentially lethal weapons. Since the rabbits didn’t seem to eat these plants, I figured we could use the zucchini to club them to death. If you just turned them into compost, no doubt the seeds would sprout and soon we wouldn’t be able to see the house for zucchini vines. Anyway, even before the garden expired, the stakes from the forsythia – the ones that had been kept in the garage for several years – had sprouted and spread like the undead. And now there are two vast clumps on the western side of the yard that clearly have an agenda of their own. Beautiful for the month of April, they create a vast wooded network for squirrels and rabbits, protection for the birds from overhead hawks and ample space for a complexful of catbirds to nest in.

In the mid-80s, N and I came out to chop down the original forsythia which had by then, a storey tall, taken over the corner of the house. N’s dad brought out his saws and clippers and, of course, the “chipper” for turning tree branches into sawdust. This project took the three of us most of the day and I was exhausted before we were even half-way through, though N’s dad, then in his mid-70s, was still going strong as the sun began to set. As I look around the yard 25 years later, I figure that original pre-sawdust forsythia was maybe 1/12th of what there is out there now... and it’s still growing and spreading from the original stump which no chemical seemed capable of killing.

Meanwhile, one of this spring’s project is staring me in the face: reseeding the vast patch of brown where the geothermal system was installed last August. I have not yet calculated the increase in my electrical usage to heat the house this winter compared to the previous winter’s expenses with the old oil furnace, but I was glad to be able to declare “30% of the installation cost” on my federal taxes last week – or rather, the “up to $2,000" part of it which was really less than half of that 30%. But still, comparing that to the 0% amount allowed by Pennsylvania, I’m not complaining.

Amidst the calls of birds – does it mean something different when a call of a falling perfect fourth repeated four times is answered by an inversion of those same pitches but repeated five times? – I hear the cry of the lawn-mower as I sit on my bench under the Japanese Maple and work my way slowly past the half-way point of David Copperfield (only because of time dedicatable to reading, not for any lack of enjoyment). Floyd the Pink Flamingo (an original 1955 Florida souvenir, not any cheap modern plastic imitation) is now back in place after migrating to the living room for the winter.

Once again the Earth has gone full-circle, constantly renewing itself as it has done for centuries and eons, by whatever means man has devised for the telling of time. I drive through my community which I remember was mostly farm-land fifty years ago and is now chock full of houses – though I can still see the pond not far away where we used to swim when we were kids, now home to mallards and geese and the occasional passing white egret. I look at the topographical map my grandfather gave me that was printed in 1899 and though many of the basic roads are already there, the place seems unrecognizable otherwise.

This area had been settled in the 1750s, woods and fields before it became farmland. And now some 300 acres of nearby woods, fields and farmland are being turned into townhouses and McMansions, just one of the most recent development projects in the vicinity. The impact on the region’s traffic and infrastructure is one thing but I wonder about the deer, for instance, whom I’d never seen in my back yard before: why are they stopping by now? Probably because their fields have been foreclosed and they have to move on? Maybe I should not worry so much about them eating a few of my plants...

- Dr. Dick

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