Friday, June 4, 2010

Thorny Things

When we moved to this property a year ago, the demands of yard care overwhelmed me. Our place is landscaped on all sides, growing slightly wild only in the back acre that slopes down toward the creek. That’s where the beaver snacked on young fruit trees last spring, destroying a modest orchard put in by the prior owners.

I confess I’ve felt guilty more than once, knowing that the folks who sold us the house still live in Newberg and pass through our neighborhood from time to time. The yard they took such care to establish over a full decade is not looking as well tended these days. Do they notice that I pulled out their roses? That we forgot to put down pre-emergent on the lawn this spring, and now we have as much clover as grass?

In our first months here I joked that the prior homeowners must have loved all things thorned, from roses to barberry to blackberry vines climbing the south side of the house. I had to buy leather gloves to work in the garden! The barberry shrubs were nearly as tall as I am when we moved in, and shaped like giant prickly pink balls. The prior owners offered to sell us their used hedge trimmer to keep the barberry under control. We declined.

At first I felt we should keep the yard looking as it had always looked. I even had a garden journal, passed to me by the prior owner, detailing each month of the year and what needed to be fertilized, pruned, or deadheaded. Inevitably, when I would open the journal I’d find we’d missed something. And anyway, if I don’t like rose bushes, I’m not about to waste time and money fertilizing them! My taste does not run to prickly stems. Soon the journal stayed on the library shelf.

On walks around town, I noticed other barberry shrubs not constrained to a particular shape, their limbs and leaves extending skyward. I like my hedges more bedheaded than coifed, so I asked around: how can we help our shrubs achieve more natural look and a smaller, less lethal, stature?

My neighbor, a landscaper, told me. “Cut them down and let them grow back,” he said. “In the fall, not the spring.” One October day he sent his crew over to saw off my shrubs knee high. Thankfully, the crew also carried away the spiny prunings.

All through winter we had silly sawn-off stumps out front instead of shrubs, and the branches were bare so late into spring I wondered if the barberry would recover. Only over the last few weeks have the barberries claimed their natural shape, feathery and free. The new growth is soft, including the thorns. The yard is beginning to look and feel like it’s ours.

We’re laying claim to this place, letting things grow a little wilder, a little less restrained—except the blackberry vines on the south side, which I hack regardless of potential for fruit. Thorny things must be taught a lesson.

This garden keeping is a careful dance. Does the yard own us, or do we own the yard? A little of each, I think. These trees and shrubs will one day pass to other hands, with or without a gardening journal. Whether surveying wilds or coifed gardens, we’re ultimately not owners of these chunks of earth, this garden, but we are its caretakers.

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