Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Path to the Apples

Weather: Too warm by half; last major precipitation 2/15/12; 12:20 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming in the area: Apricot, forsythia, hyacinth, alfilerillo, purple, black and tansy mustards, dandelion.

Burned brome hay field Saturday.

Water running in one of the small ditches.

What’s leafing out: Siberian elms, globe and weeping willows, Apache plume.

What’s active in the area: Salt bush, Japanese honeysuckle, gypsum phacelia, velvetweed, western stickseed, cheese mallow, leather leaf globemallow, alfalfa, loco, broom senecio, winterfat, gumweed, horseweed, strap leaf and golden hairy asters; June, pampas, and needle grasses.

What’s active in my yard: Raspberry, grape hyacinth, daylily, tulip, daffodil, bearded iris, garlic, garlic chives, blue flax, vinca, hollyhock, winecup, bouncing Bess, pinks, snow-in-summer, small-leaf soapwort, Jupiter’s beard, Dutch clover, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, chrysanthemum.

What has active leaf buds: Bradford pear, apple, cherry, peach, hybrid roses, cottonwood, sandbar willow, privet, lilac, Russian olive.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: House finch, other small birds, first ants, earth worm.

Weekly update: Warm afternoons lure you with the promise of spring while subfreezing mornings warn you nature lies.

Though you want to be doing something productive, it’s best to content yourself with the functional - repairing fences, burning weeds, clearing ditches.

Still, you get visions of fountains splaying in rose gardens or parterres filled with herbs. You forget what you know about July before the monsoons. You forget what good garden guides tell you about the difficulties of making changes in existing gardens.

You drive by other people’s ambitious projects and draw no morals. The set of paths that later were filled with stone because only native sunflowers grew. The set of raised boxes that stand empty because only áñil del muerto survived.

You recite your list of grievances: how tired you are of mud and ice in January, how bored you are with keeping Silver King artemisia from overwhelming phlox in August, how weary you are of winterfat taking over the apples you can’t prune or feed.

You head to the lumber yard. They’re most accommodating. It’s been a slow winter. Spring construction isn’t what it was. Sure, they’ll load the block in your trunk.

And that’s where I am. With a pile of thin cap block, a hoe, a small shovel, some hedge clippers and a new linoleum trowel, ready to take on the world. Or rather, build a better access path to the apple trees.

I planted the trees in 2003. Some were bare root, some came potted. Neither did particularly well with the winds, but they haven’t fared much worse than those put in by others at the same time in more favorable situations.

When I saw some of theirs begin to bloom, I decided two years ago maybe mine needed more water in late summer. I was rewarded with my first flowers last spring.

My irrigation system - and I actually had someone install a real irrigation system, not just some ad hoc maze of hoses - was less than optimal. He dug a trench uphill and buried a small line to some sprinkler heads. There was so little pressure, the water would only dribble. The apples got by, winterfat sprouted downhill.

Inspired by the few flowers, I abandoned the sprinkler heads last summer and laid down a soaker hose. Only, I couldn’t get it flat because the winterfat and tall grasses made it impossible to get close enough to the trees to do it right.

That was the genesis of this project. I want the apples to do better, and I want to be able to see if anything I was doing was working.

It’s times like this I’d like to hire someone, only the garden guides are right - you can only do that if you’re starting anew. Building what the books call architectural elements, or what trendy people in Santa Fé call garden features, requires machines and day laborers who don’t know a dandelion from a poppy.

Some of my problems were caused by previous workmen, the man who installed the irrigation and left me a trench to fill, the one who dug the trenches for the natural gas lines and left me more trenches to fill, the man from the telephone company who reopened the ditch I’d just filled because the man digging the gas line had cut the telephone line.

Do-it-yourself is necessity wrapped in a veneer of yuppie sophistication by Bob Vila. Read Gertrude Jekyll carefully. While she was out there with her plasterer’s hammer dividing iris, she was also overseeing a crew of heavy laborers who did what she wanted exactly as she wanted it done. Or, so she let potential clients assume.

My first problem was getting a path from the drive to the apples over the intersection of the irrigation ditch with the gas line ditch. Somehow, there’s never enough dirt to fill a trench and a little indentation is always left. With time, the wind takes the top and the bottom settles. The indentation deepens.

I spent the first morning digging dirt to fill the work area. I suspect my work will erode away, and fear if I move dirt from the drive to fill the low area I’d create a new environment for weeds.

I know I should excavate and then fill with something that won’t heave. But, there are roots there now and I’d have to find some place to put the replaced dirt after I’d filled that one area.

I won’t even think about the problems of finding someone to deliver a small amount of fill dirt, figuring out where to have it unloaded, and how to keep it from blowing before I used it.

Instead, I’ve been scraping the top of the ground trying to level it with the trowel and block. After all, I tell myself, if it’s not even it doesn’t matter. I’m the only one who’ll be using it and it’s meant to be utilitarian, not beautiful. I wouldn’t be using cement block if I expected beauty.

It would be nice though if the path could be straight, but there’s the winterfat. The last time I tried to dig one out, the root went down more than a foot then branched. The hole I left was as large as the shrub I removed. If I did that here, it’d take all my energy, and no block would get laid.

Last summer I tried Round-up on some winterfat that’s in the way of another desired path. It took several applications, and the last I looked it wasn’t dead. Those shrubs were in the open. These are too close to the apples to treat.

So, I cut them to the ground and threaded the block between them. Maybe, I can harasses them to death.

Garden guides may tell you curved lines are more aesthetically pleasing than straight ones, but this isn’t what they meant. What they meant is it’s impossible to get a straight line straight enough.

No matter how hard I try, using one machine made rectangular block to align the next, the lines aren’t perfect. The blocks aren’t regular. They won’t fit into a plane that’s sloping at two angles. Masons use grout to hide the spaces, but I can’t. If I filled variable cracks with dirt, weeds would take root.

I tell myself, it’s OK. I’m the only one using the path. The neighbors couldn’t care less. They have their own failed projects, the sodded lawn that didn’t get watered one summer, the vegetable gardens begun with great enthusiasm in what became drought years and since abandoned.

There is one benefit in laying the block myself. I’ve uncovered a few earthworms, as well as a few other zoological and botanical specimens I’d rather not have found. Still, I know in a way you can’t know watching someone else work, even with neglect, the soil around the apples has slowly improved.

Hobhouse, Penelope. Gertrude Jekyll on Gardening, 1983, compilation of writings by Jekyll with commentary by Hobhouse.

1. Half built path by apple trees with suckers that need pruning, 22 March 2012; dead grass and winterfat just beyond the path end, uncut alfalfa and grass before; jog for another winterfat stump.

2. Neighbor’s raised beds, 11 January 2012; for a while tall cosmos grew in them, then they hired a landscape company who graveled everything and planted xeric plants; they left a few tasteful Buddhist rocks in the boxes which now get colonized in late summer by weeds.

3. Sunken ditch to the left with rocks stabilizing the path until I figure out what to do, 21 March 2012.

4. Path through winterfat stumps, 21 March 2012.

5. Path through winterfat stumps, 21 March 2012.

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