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Friday, March 20, 2009

Flipping the Bird (Sept. 21, 2008)

Today is the Autumnal Equinox, the official border between summer and fall. The blur of my summer is filled with piles and heaps of yard work. Today I conquered every gardener’s worst nightmare, and although my forearms are so sore it’s hard to type, I must tell my tale, and perhaps save others from the battle I waged.

I spent the summer wrestling my back yard, literally an endless project. As soon as you’ve pruned or weeded something, water and sun conspire to grow more that soon will need pruning and weeding. If nature is a cycle of life, backyards are a cycle of work with no end. But I love plants and don’t want a cement-scape for a yard, so I accept that weeds will come, leaves will fall, and eventually I will have to deal with them. I’d avoided even looking at a certain overgrown plant for months, too intimidated by the thought of trimming it. But eventually Operation Ignore Big Plants no longer cut it.

It’s not that I want a perfectly manicured back yard. That look is too controlled for me, too UNnatural. After all, plants grow wildly, unpredictably, not in the lollypop shapes you see at Disneyland. But our backyard jungle bears no resemblance to the sculpted hedges at the happiest place on earth. No, our yard is sometimes the NAPPIEST place on earth. At attempt to create a little more order was…in order, and long overdue.

Today’s mission: Slaying the Bird. This beast is a 25-year-old Bird of Paradise plant. We’ve enjoyed the trees and plants that our house’s previous owners planted. At first I liked the Bird of Paradise, and why not? They’re colorful, graceful, and thrive with no water. BUT, lesson learned: if something thrives with no water, it clearly is durable, and trimming it is like hacking at rebar. The only thing breaking is YOU. But the plant was encroaching on the other trees, overtaking the yard, so I plowed on.

My first tool of choice was hand-held clippers. Effective but slow-going, so it was back to the arsenal of tools. Machete. No dice. Sharper machete. No luck. The Electric-powered “saws all” was as effective as hacking through the Amazon with a plastic butter knife. Back to the clippers. I literally clipped thousands of times. I cut hundreds of stalks multiples times because the stalks were so dense I couldn’t get the clippers to the root. I’d cut off the first 3 feet all over before I could get close enough to give the whole thing its military recruit hair cut. It has a flat top now, but like hair, this beast will need another hacking before long.

Surprises lay buried beneath the bird. I found a border of bricks, long ago concealed by the plant itself. A large metal tomato plant cone was tangled among the leaves. A small china plate, remarkably intact, lay at the base. I imagined the stories behind these surprises. Was the plate set aside for just a minute during a patio birthday party, then forgotten for twenty years?

I filled our wheelbarrow ten times, emptying twenty year’s worth of leaves and stalks into my husband’s truck bed. It was so full I had to climb onto the bumper, jump up for momentum, then shove the lid down to close it! I took photos of the full truck bed and the flat-topped Bird and raced to the computer to document my efforts. It took five hours to take this beast down. I wanted to tell everyone I knew how mighty I am. My husband (wisely) agreed with me.

I’m proud of my victory over the bird. The whole yard looks more open, cleaner. But after one improvement is made, everything else looks even worse! For instance: the 50-year-old fences, which are literally falling at our feet, begging us for rehab. One neighbor replaced the mutual fence after I spent hours cutting tree branches and clearing weeds to clear space. In two days a new 6-foot fence stood proudly, making the whole yard look better...until you see the other fence, which now look even worse! And now that the bird has been tamed I see thousands of dry leaves. I dread the very idea…The lesson is: don’t make improvements! Once you fix something, you will be caught in an endless cycle of “what else looks terrible now?”

Another moral of my story: avoid the bird. Run from it when it beckons you from Home Depot’s Garden section. Ignore its seductive whisper, its promise that it won’t grow into the plant beast from Little Shop of Horrors. Today it’s a few stalks and glossy leaves. Twenty years from now you will need dynamite to remove it. Do not give in to its temptation, lest you meet the fate I met on the weekend of the autumnal equinox. There isn’t enough space on your property for you both: either the bird goes or you do, and either way, it isn’t pretty!

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