Yard-a-geddon

It happens every year.

I’ve been intimately involved with the American Society of Journalists and Authors, for more than 20 years. I was president for two of those years, vice president for three, and on the board of directors for sixteen years, finally rotating off the board in 2018.

So when ASJA has its annual conference, I just have to be there. And it’s always in New York, and always sometime around the beginning of May. Which means the same thing always happens every year: We leave town just as the rain is abating, the sun is coming out, the days are getting long, and every plant in Washington State goes on overdrive, growing for all it’s worth. We leave a yard and come home to a jungle.

Every year it’s a problem. This year it turned into something much worse. Faced with an overgrown yard and a fair amount of spousal nagging, Bill made a common-sense suggestion. “I need help,” he said. My attempts over the years to find someone reliable and affordable who could work on our yard have all ended in frustration so–since it was his suggestion–I decided to make it his problem.

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to find anyone we can afford who’ll be trustworthy,” I said. “If you can, go ahead and hire them.”

“But–” I said, and it was a very important “but” indeed–“You have to supervise them.”

I had good reason for this emphatic caveat. The first year we came back to a lawn that looked like the Pacific Temperate Rainforest, I asked around and hired some guys who came recommended to mow the lawn and cut back the blackberries. The following year the beautiful, old Concord grape next to the deck started dying. I’d made jam from it our first autumn in our house but that second summer it was looking decidedly sickly. That was an unusually hot, dry summer so I figured that was the problem, did some research, and bought one of those donut-shaped watering rings to do drip irrigation around its base. I ran water into it for an hour every other night but to no avail. The following year, it looked completely dead. Looks can be deceiving, so I gave it another year to make sure, but nope, it was never coming back.

It took me a long time and a lot of asking around to figure out what had killed it. The previous owner of the house, with whom we’ve stayed friends, finally provided the answer: It had gotten weed whacked. I took a look around the garden: There was also damage to the green grape plant near the patio, although it seemed to be holding its own. One of our large old rose bushes also showed weed whacker damage from last summer and I held my breath through the winter as it kind of limped along, but with care it burst into bloom this summer. I’d learned an important lesson about the harm hired yard help can inflict.

Bill agreed to supervise, and he hired someone I’ll call the Mad Mower. The Mad Mower charged a fairly reasonable hourly rate, and when Bill set him to mowing, he was impressed with the Mad Mower’s efficiency. The guy had serious equipment and he rapidly chopped down the overgrown grass in the front yard, collecting it and piling it high on top of my compost heap.

On the Mad Mower’s next visit, Bill set him to weed whacking, and that’s where everything went to hell. That evening I found that the lavender plant by the entrance to our driveway had been cut most of the way to the ground. It was a very old plant with several thick trunks. The house was built in 1965 and I suspect that lavender might have been planted then. It was one of the many old, beautiful plants that made me want this house so much when we first saw it. 

Lavenders don’t need much care, but every year I carefully pulled the morning glories off it, and lugged gallon jugs of water to it during the hot, dry part of the summer since it was well beyond the reach of my garden hose. Every year I admired its tall stalks and made mental plans to harvest the lavender buds on the ends of them. Now it lay almost flat in its little stone bed, with only a few remaining stalks of lavender blooms doing their best to make up for the big gorgeous plant that was no more. Not only that, but several of our rhododendrons–as old as the lavender and grown into thick-trunked small trees–had bark stripped off them at weed whacker height.

For a little while there, I went out of my mind. I raged. I banged the table. I yelled at Bill, who already felt terrible and couldn’t bear hearing me say, over and over, how upset I was. I walked around in a blinding state of fury and sorrow. I couldn’t bear the thought of watching another one of the old, beautiful plants that had made me fall in love with this place slowly fade out and die.

Eventually, I calmed down. I wasn’t really angry at Bill. As for the Mower, he had asked Bill if there was anything in particular to avoid when he weed whacked the strip of grass next to the lavender. Bill said no. I’d have been angry at him for this answer, except that I’d have probably said no too. It didn’t occurred to Bill, and it likely wouldn’t have to me, to warn someone that a lavender plant the size of a card table, with thick, well-established trunks, a profusion of purple blooms, and surrounded by painted stones, was not a weed. But, since he did ask the question, I couldn’t really be angry at the Mad Mower either.

It took a long time, but eventually I calmed down and set about doing everything I could to save our injured garden. The consensus in the plant community is that putting cutting paste or any other such product on a weed-whacked tree trunk ultimately does more harm than good; better to let the plant heal on its own. So I did what I could: I weeded around the rhododendrons and other injured bushes, and put down mulch and food. From what I’ve read and been told, they have a good chance of survival.

The lavender is more worrisome. They’re hardy plants but apparently you should never cut one back by more than a third. The fact that it’s very old and well established might help it survive, according to a garden expert I called at a local nursery. I did what I could there too. I cut the ragged ends of branches off so there would be neat edges that might have a better chance of healing. I fed it. Most days I stop on my way into or out of the driveway and take a close look at it. If spending a long time staring at a plant had healing properties, it would get better for sure.

For the moment, it looks OK. There are a few proud stalks standing tall, and a few new shoots among the bare remains of branches. It seems to be doing its level best to survive. But we won’t really know until it’s been through the winter whether it’s going to make it or not.

Meantime, Bill and I agreed: Never again. We can’t really blame the Mad Mower, but he’s not welcome back here either. And the next time anyone wields a weed whacker on this property, it will be one of us.

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