Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tree of "Heaven"

I'm not a native-species purist. I love my Japanese maples and, for that matter, the basil in our garden. But some intruders are simply intolerable. Chief among them these days is "Tree of Heaven," or Ailanthus altissima. 

While a mature example is a pretty tree, it has many vices. For instance, Ailanthus tends to make the soil around it toxic to other plant life. Such a tree evolved carefully over the eons to compete with other plants. The Wikipedia entry cited notes the tree's many useful properties, but like mint in the herb garden, a little of this tree goes a long way.

And you can't just have a little of Ailanthus. Here is my "after" picture of the little colony shown above.
Left to its own devices, a mature tree can produce up to 325,000 seeds in a single season. The National Park Service's page on the tree has many shocking facts. But around here, I've got a couple of groves of the tree where soil was disturbed over the decades.

Control of this plant is not simple. Cutting simply leads to multiplication, like the Hydra of Greek mythology. Spraying is not efficient for huge groves, and I don't use chemicals in that manner.

Yet here my organic practice bends; we have an invasive species out of control. My technique, gleaned from several sources, involves cutting smaller trees to a height where I can treat the stump with Roundup concentrate, using a paint brush and great care to not get chemicals anywhere else.

This needs doing in late summer/early fall or in the spring. A few large trees will get a half-cut to the trunk that runs 2" deep, so I can treat the trunk with Roundup.  I plan to check my cuttings for sprouts in Spring and re-treat them. I have to wade into some really "snakey" thickets to get to some of the trees, so snake-proof chaps are mandatory gear.

We'll see if we have fewer next year. Luckily, there are not huge groves here, as one sees along I-64. I'm probably dealing with 100 trees...for now.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pancakes at Home: Lessons of a First Summer in the Country

Some years ago, a ladies' garden club invited me to give a talk about shade gardens. The club membership covers an affluent older neighborhood, full of old homes, old shade-trees, and old money. Jags, Benzes, and Volvo SUVs line the driveways of yards kept manicured by yard services.

I put on a nice tie and sport coat, and I even remembered shirt, shoes, and pants.  The meeting was delightful to me, since the appetizers were catered, the wine carefully selected and plentiful,  the ladies lovely and welcoming. Give me a room full of girl-talk anytime, so I don't have to discuss sports, about which I know nothing and care about even less, or find out how little my male companions really know about things I do really love: fast cars, World War II history, the space program, good liquor.

At the club meeting, as the setting sun made us all aglow with our wine and good cheer, I covered the basics of how to work with shady yards, emphasizing native plants, reduction of chemical use, and ways to conserve soil and water in Central Virginia's fickle weather.

I thought I'd knocked my "gig" out of the park, taking questions, drinking in moderation to their success, listening as everyone said it was a great talk.

I was never invited again.

It proved no great personal blow; I forgot about this one-off talk until one day, on the tractor mowing, it came to me: I told these gardeners what they did not wish to hear. They wanted me to recommend non-native species, discuss how to best remove healthy trees that were "in the way," and generally affirm what they already wanted to believe, what they already knew and did.

There on the tractor seat, I saw a fundamental difference between urban and suburban life and life "out here," where the land is Boss, water depends on a well, time moves differently, and the knowledge is acquired, often in harsh ways, never assumed.

So in the spirit of that realization of a fundamental difference between what the country and metropolitan areas teach, here are my lessons from year one in the country.
  • Work with the land or it works you to death: Perhaps the very wealthy can simply hire enough help to tend many rural acres. The Amish, scarce around  here, can lend each other a hand. Unlike the garden-club ladies, however, I can't spray or bulldoze my way to a "better" yard without breaking the bank. The land has a will of its own.  A large plot of land necessitates hard work with machinery, something Michael Pollan discusses well in his early book, Second Nature. Even there, however, it would be easy to ruin the character of land and soil with too much scraping and cutting.

    Old-timers used the first tractors and backhoes and bulldozers to push back the woods to what I call "bowshot range," as if some ancestral memory of Indian raids haunted them. While I do provide the local raptor-birds with a good "kill zone" around our garden and house to cut down on the population of rodents and snakes, I also don't try to make the land into a golf-course or Japanese tea-garden.
  • Local really means local here: Ours is not the meritorious "locovore" movement in town and the DIY ethos of hipsters (I say that with admiration, not irony).  The local businesses here offer limited goods and services rather than boutique goods, but in nine months I've gotten on a first-name basis with my butcher, hardware-store manager, and deli owner (where the food is drop-dead fabulous, he being Lebanese-American like me). I support our tiny post office to keep it open, as do many neighbors. It means a job with benefits for another neighbor. 

    I think one of our biggest adjustments has been "making do or doing without" so we don't have to drive to the suburban hell of Short Pump on a night I want left quiet. If Food Lion only has one type of really good cheese, so be it. I pretend I'm in 1970 at the A&P, and I make do. I do my "town shopping" in clusters to save gas and during  the off hours, when even Short Pump "Towne Center" can be as pleasant an excursion, almost, as loitering in Cary Town.
  • Time slows..and then slows some more: From a county extension agent, I got a booklet about making the transition to rural life. One fact stands out as impressively accurate. Locals don't hurry, and they look down on the "oh, I'm SO busy" attitude of urbanites. One is expected to linger, share news and, more importantly, listen. This will probably erode over time, given the always-online culture of kids here, but who cares? I'll be gone to whatever reward awaits me, by then.
  • Holding your tongue is a good thing: Local Tea-Party activists, mostly older white folks, meet in our deli. They could not be further from me, politically, but they are pleasant and not grumpy. We say hello and I eat my felafel while they bash Obama (rather politely).  In town I'd have fired off a verbal salvo. Not here. I've learned not to talk about religion, politics, or tractor-preferences save with close friends. That is reported to have once been a nice part of American life.
  • Being older has its advantages: I no longer feel the urge to be part of a scene that excludes those my age. That means it's fine to make my own pancakes at home instead of driving 30 minutes just to visit the latest hip place for pancakes that would cost me $10.  And my batter recipe is good enough, when paired with the locally made sausage.
Perhaps I expected real transformation, spiritually and emotionally, out here. Instead, country life means the slow accretion of the "facts on the ground" and a gradual calming of life through acceptance and hard work that builds the body and clears the mind.

Not bad for nine months. If the ladies of the garden club ever ask me back, I'll make that my focus.