by Mimi Hedl
We built our homestead on a hayfield. Just grass. Mostly fescue. No out buildings. No trees, except along the property lines and the county road. A blank slate. Little by little we filled in the blanks, adding a sycamore, a white oak, whatever shrubs we could dig up along the back roads, where abandoned homesteads flourished. And of course daffodils and iris. How could we resist? These flowers, available to all, would mark old home sites and give us pause, wondering how these homesteaders fared on this land, knowing the flowers would gladden their tired spirits come spring.
Now, thirty-five years later, our gardens have matured. Trees shade the house; shrubs have become thickets, impenetrable. They provide great cover for the birds to hide from hawks, but not easy for the gardener to keep out poison ivy seedlings, cat briers, bittersweet and other uninviteds. So the gardener goes in and thins out the stools. In some places she discovers a shrub does not belong. Because she showed such enthusiasm in her youth, the gardener has debts to pay. And we find her this winter, in the Park, on the edge of the culinary garden, taking out three thirty-year old stools of flowering quince.
Around here the locals call it Fire on the Mountain, chaenomeles lagenaria. And when it blooms in spring, the bright red flowers say fire, exploding in flame. You can’t not fall in love with this shrub. How many starts have visitors taken from the farm? How many still ask for a start? How many warnings issued about their suckering habit, stealthily taking more and more of the garden. Gardeners have stars in their eyes, like she did, all those years ago. “Oh, to see it bloom!”
As with kittens and children, many plants start out innocent and lovely. As they mature their demands know no limits. When shrubs have a suckering habit, you simply need to cut the sprouts that grow too closely together. Period. If you do this every winter, you can manage your shrubs. But if you continue to plant more and more shrubs, trees, flowers, herbs… so your attention becomes divided and you neglect maintenance for years, well, your moment of doom and gloom will arrive, like this gardener’s did, at work now on the quince.
First her helper, Mark came. With chainsaw in hand, he buzzed through one stool in less than five minutes. “There you go Miss Mimi. You’d be cutting with them clippers of yours for a long time.” She smiles and assures him, yes, at least two hours, maybe longer. She looks at the pile of branches and twigs intertwined, a mare’s nest, for her to figure out how to disentangle from the fig trees and other quinces close by. Silently she groans. Guys that use chainsaws don’t haul brush. When he asked if he should take out the next stool, quickly she pulled his attention to another area.
These quince shrubs interfere with the fig trees, planted on the edge of the culinary garden. The figs lean out over the border, into the culinary garden, starved for light and space. They don’t produce fruit like they used to. The quince must go. The quince shrubs, way behind the figs, may remain for now, though she’ll attempt to thin them out.
After cutting and hauling all the brush Mark had cut, she looks at the 10-foot-tall shrubs, easily covering 16 square feet each, and begins to cut the upper 5 feet off the sprouts. She has a slow, methodical approach. Without a chainsaw ripping through wood, she can hear birds, hear herself think.
Each stool, on a small scale, looks like an over-crowded forest, one that hasn’t seen fire for too many years. The sprouts range from tiny to over an inch in diameter. In order to compete for light, they grow in and out of each other. Really, it looks like an impossible puzzle. Where to start? It seems clever that our gardener cuts out the tops first. Otherwise she’d have branches whipping her in the face, as she struggles to pull them out. This job would have defeated her in her youth. But now, time passes pleasantly, the sun feels warm, her progress slow, but satisfying, as she watches the shrubs dissembling, sprout by sprout.
Once she’s cut a small bundle of branches, she hauls them out to another part of the culinary garden, no tripping on branches, stacking them in neat piles to burn later, saving the larger sprouts for kindling.
Hours go by. Lunch comes and goes. She has reduced two stools to 5-foot sticks, the third stool to the ground. Piles lie everywhere, but out of her way. The work of reclaiming any part of a garden, like undoing a mistake, humbles the gardener. Oh, to have vision, to know what will happen in ten, twenty, or more years. But would we do it any differently? So much of gardening seems like a whim, a momentary excitement, a desire to see something bloom, cover a bare spot, provide a focus. And we act, with stars in our eyes.
To do our homework, researching the habits of a plant, to know if it has an invasive nature in our part of the country, to wash the roots of plants other gardeners give us; these seem commendable practices, something a seasoned gardener would do. Even with this diligence, you have no assurance you won’t have to dig up a mistake, many of them, often, unless you feel content to live with chaos and let the plants fight it out amongst themselves.
Our gardener will try to burn the stools so they won’t re-sprout. At least she can get rid of the stumps and not trip over them when she collects parsley behind the fig trees or poppy seed from the stately poppies. The figs will not have to fight for space. They can grow up and out, with no impediments, producing ample figs in these years of climate change. The thought so inspires her that the chore of cutting and burning seems like a pleasure. She sees a future garden that will luxuriate instead of struggle. At least for the next, well, good while.