In the three weeks since Steven and I planted the four emerald green arborvitae, I have watched them disintegrate before my eyes, each day more pieces of green leaf littering the ground. I emailed the nursery pleading for help to keep them alive—we had worked too hard and brotherly to let them die—and the nursery’s diagnostician replied that the trees looked alive but badly eaten, and he wondered if we had deer in the neighborhood. Boy do we, I fumed to myself for the thousandth time. Mule deer roam the neighborhood by the dozen, nipping at tulip sprouts and lily petals and other flowers and shrubs and garden produce, transforming from wild novelty to neighborhood bane—but I had not thought they would eat evergreens full of resins. I drove to Lowes immediately and purchased two deer repellent products, the first a powder of dried blood (the package did not say whose) that would trigger the instinctual flight response in deer (so the package promised), and the second a liquid concoction of putrescent egg solids graced with garlic. Eager for the trees to begin their recovery, I sprayed them liberally with putrescence, and discovered instantly why deer and rabbits—indeed any sane creature—would stay away. Then I spent an hour manicuring the tree moats and surrounding grounds, skunked and gagging the while. I would have done well to reverse the order of things. But by the time I had finished, the revolting stench had become strangely comforting: if it worked, our trees would recover and fill out, emerald green and evergreen fragrant (except for the days of repeated treatments). After my report to Dad, he explained how he has had increasing trouble rising from his shower chair after bathing. He thought he must be getting fatter because the arms of the chair hugged his hips tighter and tighter. Today he could not free himself of the chair, but stood with the chair clinging to his backside like in The Bishop’s Wife. Surely, he thought, he could not have gained that much weight in just a few days. He asked Elie to take a look at the chair. After turning the chair over, Elie announced that the chair’s metal supports had cracked, allowing the chair to bend and the arms to squeeze, and that if Mom and Dad kept using the chair it would soon snap in half and collapse beneath them. Sarah lost no time sending over a newer, stronger chair, a pleasant blue color. I have contemplated many times, in fact constantly, the value of the help and service my siblings have gifted to our parents, and how the gifts are in turn mine, lessening the weight of burdens, making room for a break, unstringing the bow. And I am grateful. After dinner Dad declared, “Roger, it is so nice of you to get home late from work and make us a dinner of roasted vegetables.” The sweet potato and butternut squash wedges, roasted in olive oil and salt, had indeed been delicious. But the odor of putrescent garlicky eggs remains arrogantly in my nostrils.
Tag Archives: Landscaping
Courage at Twilight: As If They Belonged
The March afternoon shone sunny and warm, and after struggling to help Dad transfer from his recliner to his power wheelchair, I asked him if he would like to take a “walk” to the end of the street and back, thinking he would enjoy a change of scenery and the fresh air. “What I’d really like,” he replied, was to ride his mower, set low, to pull up winter’s dead grass thatch. I sighed. I told him I respected his desire to ride the mower and prep the lawn, but if he was having so much difficulty climbing into the chair, I did not think he could safely mount the mower. He sighed. And he yielded. And I suggested the alternative of riding in his power chair to inspect the yard in preparation for riding the mower next week. He nodded, and I walked after him as he rode his chair out the front door, down the ramps, and onto the lawn. In the back yard, we found the grass saturated and squishy, and I urged him toward the higher ground. But he felt afraid to tip the chair on the incline and stuck to the lowland valley, filling the wheel treads with dead grass and mud. I sighed again. Back in the house, I parked the chair on the hardwood floor and let the mess dry, and in the evening picked the treads clean with chop sticks and vacuumed up the detritus. For dinner I cooked Tieghan Gerard’s delectable garlic lemon shrimp, to Mom’s delight: “I love shrimp!” I did not know but was pleased to discover her “favorite.” Sarah came over and, with the hospital bed gone, helped Steven and me reestablish Dad’s office—he had invited us to bring back his grandfather Nelson’s solid oak desk, but to orient the furniture so he could see out the window while using the computer. We grunted and strained in moving the desks and shelves and cabinets and books and endless computer chords into a simple configuration we thought best utilized the space. Dad ambled in and disapproved, but struggled to express what he wanted. I had lazily resisted trying other configurations—the stuff was heavy and awkward, after all—but dug into my shallow reservoir of patience, breathed deeply, and acquiesced. He finally announced his great pleasure in the outcome, and I felt compelled to confess his configuration, indeed, was the best, and to acknowledge the office was his and should be organized as he wanted. But my reservoir was dry, and I felt exhausted and desperate for time in a dark cave. Recovered by the next day, I enlisted Steven to help me select and plant juniper trees in place of the fallen spruce. We measured and drew the space and planned the tree spacing and earth sloping. At Glover nursery, we texted photos to Dad of seemingly acceptable replacements—we were not about to bring home trees he did not like—and he selected an emerald arborvitae. Four would occupy nicely the space yet leave room for them to fill out. As we dug the holes, Dad tooled out in his power chair and watched the entire two-hour process, contributing his encouragements: “Don’t dig the hole too deep.” “Are you sure it’s okay to bury the balls in their burlap?” Mom watched from the warmth of the kitchen window. Having approached the project carefully and technically, and having involved Dad in every decision (Mom was happy with whatever we did), the result pleased us all, and we had four new friends marshalled together under the falling spring snow, standing as if they had always been there, as if they belonged.
Pictured above: four new emerald arborvitae.
Nursery staff expertly stuffing four 7-foot-tall trees into my Subaru.
Courage at Twilight: A Straight Hedge
“I’ll tell you what’s on my list,” Dad announced. (1) He wanted to mix a few tablespoons of cement to fill the cracks where mortar had fallen out of the brick mailbox pedestal when it capsized. (2) He wanted to trim new growth from the juniper hedge where the twenty-foot-tall trees, covered in powder-blue berries, had begun to infringe on the public sidewalk. (3) He wanted to hoe the remaining weeds out of the flower garden—the deep-rooted entwining morning glory grows a foot a day. (4) He wanted to clean the sidewalks of dust and sticks and leaves with his two-stroke blower. “I’m not saying these jobs are for you,” he insisted. “I’m just telling you my job list for myself.” Of course, I knew his body would balk at these jobs, except maybe the mortar. With a free hour, I went to work with the DeWalt hedge trimmer and carefully, slowly, carved a clean new vertical line against the sidewalk edge, taking care not to leave bulges and not to carve out concave curves. My critical eye searched out and eliminated defects Dad might detect. The aromatic trimmings filled a thirty-gallon garbage can. A smiling walker came along just as I finished the job, and she thanked me. Then the hoeing and weeding and sweeping and blowing. Dad, meanwhile, set to on the mortar. An overturned garbage can served as a stable palette for mixing mortar, a camp chair his painter’s seat, and the grass his paint box with the tools and ingredients arranged. He mixed and scraped and mortared and rubbed, perfectly able and happy to do the job, and I did not hover, though I admit to watching from my upstairs office, writing. The new mailbox is in, though Burke had to cut off the back, remove a two-inch ring, then reattach the two pieces of the box with duct tape to insert into the hole. The old capstone is sledged to pieces and in the city garbage cans, and the new stone installed. Dad finished the job and sat long in the sun, slathered with SP100, gathering strength for the great labor of standing up from a chair. I checked the hedge again today just to make sure it was still straight, and exhaled my relief. In the flower bed, three little ice plants had surfaced, having survived last month’s ice plant purge. These I transplanted to two orange crocks, where they immediately set to blooming, and I cannot wait until they spread and overtop the rims and cast their bright blooms to the sun. The blooms begin close as the sun begins to set and the sky dusks. Excuse me for a moment: I can see Dad needs my help getting up from his chair at the curb.
Dad filling chinks with fresh cement.
Courage at Twilight: Wheat and Tares and Black-Capped Chickadees
Crab grass grew tall and broad amidst the chocking lily patch, the two nearly indistinguishable: the tares and the wheat, shoots intermingled and roots intertwined. But I discerned the difference, and determined not to condemn the wheat to a life of struggle against the tares, determined to pluck the grass from the midst of the lily shoots. The tares would be yanked and discarded not at the end of the world, but in the immediacy of now. And I am proud to say I did not uproot a single lily by mistaken identity or carelessness, and the weeded lily patch, sans grass, seemed to sparkle clean and green under the enormous Austrian pines, from which hung a small birdhouse of my nondescript design: four walls and a gable roof. A pair of meek and shy Black-capped Chickadees chattered softly at me for pulling the tares so close to their abode, confident enough to flit six feet away, but feeling too vulnerable to fly to the closer birdhouse. “This fall I want to plant bulbs in all these beds,” Dad enthused to me from his chair, where he watched me weed. “You can pick out the bulbs you want.” How wonderful they would be, I imagined, excited at next spring’s prospect. Dad asked me to cut off a large pine bough that hung its long heavy burden exclusively over the fence into the church parking lot. I did, and dragged it around the block into our driveway for later sectioning, moving then to cut out the old deadwood trunks from the arctic blue willow bushes. Dad thought Brian might like the wood for his fountain pen projects—he cuts branches into sanded rings, the bark still on, for pen pillows and pen beds and ink vial stands, which he posts about for admiring fellow fountain pen enthusiasts. Our day’s chores complete, Mom and Dad and I sat at the dinner table enjoying leftover rice casserole, charmed by the long-beaked hummingbird seated momentarily at the feeder, charmed by the ebullient pretty songs of the house finches, charmed by the chickadee couple flitting from the pine boughs to the hole of their humble home.
Pictured above: new lily shoots with the grab grass carefully removed.
Pictured below: my son Brian’s fountain pen accessories,
featured on Etsy, Instagram, and YouTube.
Courage at Twilight: Flower Garden
Field grass had grown up through the thick ice plant groundcover in the front flower bed. Dad had sprayed with a product that avowed “kills grass, not flowers,” which did not kill the grass and did kill the flowers, just not the plants. He had spent hours poking at the grass with a long weeding tool, from a seated position. But he finally gave up. “Rog, I have made a decision. I want to dig all the ice plants out.” I began to dig in the dense matt. “Make sure to shake out the soil,” Dad instructed. I did so (and would have done so), tossing the dirtless plant clumps in his direction. I did not look as I tossed them, and was confident I was not hitting him with the clumps, but did toss them in the vicinity of his feet, where the remnant soil filled his shoes. “Roger’s revenge,” I quipped playfully. “Did you know you dig with your left foot?” Mom asked randomly. No, I did not know. I am fairly confident my long life of garden digging has been ambidextrous (or as the local newspaper recently headlined, “amphibious”), but for some reason my left boot liked this job. Dad had stumbled out with all his hand tools, but sat in his chair talking to me as I strained at the earthy tangles. Several times he enthused, “I’m enjoying just visiting and watching you work.” As long as he is happy, I am happy. Using a leaf rake, he pulled the clumps together and lifted them into the garbage can, which I had positioned near his chair. The filled bags were very heavy, and the wheeled can, with four filled ice-plant bags, felt full of rocks. After two hours, we had an 8×9 open space, penned in by old bushes, with soft sandy soil, an empty pretty, space. “I like it just like that,” Mom insisted. “I don’t want any more bushes that you have to take care of.” But Dad and I really wanted to decorate the space with new flowering plants. We took ten-year-old Amy to the nursery, and carefully selected the plants based on tolerance of full sun and low water, plant height, and especially color and beauty of flower. The empty space is now decorated with beautiful flowering plants, seen by every car that passes—a thousand a day, easily—and every person that walks by. They all know: That’s Nelson’s yard; look how nice he has made it. “You did a big job today, Rogie. I didn’t think we would even start this job, let alone finish.” Truth be told, neither did I. Both my back and my attitude held out. We finished at dusk, and I felt too tired to cook, so out came the leftover whole-wheat lasagna Sarah sent over days before, with canned corn and peas, warmed in the microwave. Remembering the ravenous mule deer roving the neighborhood, I ventured into the dark and chill to grate Irish Spring bar soap on and around the plants. Though we like seeing the deer, having our plants eaten overnight would have made us very sad. But the next morning, the plants were intact and happily boasting their blossoms.
(Pictured above: Dad’s ice plants, before the non-killing spray killed them.)
(Pictured below: our new flower garden, before and after.)
(The string is not to keep out the deer, which would easily step over it, but rather the neighborhood children congregating at the corner bus stop who always traipse through.)
Courage at Twilight: Popcorn Popping on the Pear Tree
I grew up singing “Primary” songs in the Church’s Sunday classes for children. A perennial favorite still is a springtime song celebrating blossoming fruit trees: “Popcorn Popping.” The song has nothing to do with Jesus or the Church, but helps keep the children entertained and orderly: the lyrics and catchy tune never fail to rouse children’s enthusiasm to sing.
I looked out the window, and what did I see?
Popcorn popping on the apricot tree!
Spring has brought me such a nice surprise:
Popcorn popping right before my eyes.
Eye can take an armful and make a treat:
A popcorn ball that will smell so sweet.
It wasn’t really so, but it seemed to be:
Popcorn popping on the apricot tree.
The popcorn is popping on Dad’s ornamental pear trees, in full white-blossom bloom. Strangely, though, as pretty a sight as they provide, the blooms smell more like putrescence than popcorn or perfume. So, I admire the flowers from a distance. Large limbs have occasionally broken away from the trunks, unable to support their own weight, leaving great gaping scars which we painted over to help heal. Dad has trimmed and shaped the trees to better bear their bulk and to provide a more pleasing garden architecture. In a short week, the delicate popcorn blossoms will fall and float away, and the glossy green leaves will take the summer show. In the fall, the leaves will turn a million hues of rusty purple red, perfect for pressing. But tonight, a late wet snow is falling.
Courage at Twilight: First Week of Spring
With heavy snows and sub-freezing temperatures just three days ago, today reached 65 degrees, made warmer by the bright sun and blue sky. I found Dad settled heavily in his recliner, looking exhausted, which he was. He explained that he had worked “all day” in the yard, raking out thick mats of pine needles and milkweed stalks from the landscaped beds. He had reached above the rock wall and stretched the rake as far as he could—he can no longer climb to the terrace. “Can you help me?” he wondered, asking me to pick up the piles and compact them in the big garbage can. I used the technique my son Brian taught me, scooping a snow shovel underneath the pile and pinching from the top with a rake, then picking up the pile and dumping it in the can. Before long, the piles were gone, and the can was compacted and full. I jumped up onto the terrace and quickly raked the area Dad could not reach, filling the can beyond the brim. “Doesn’t that look nice and tidy?” he asked, pleased. He was thrilled to have worked in the yard after the long winter, though he characteristically worked too hard and too long and barely made it staggering back to the house, to settle heavily in his recliner, too tired even to eat. But Dad came outside and sat in a chair to watch me finish the work he once did, to crow over the tidy beds, and to sigh at his beautiful snow-capped mountain view. “Isn’t the mountain just beautiful? Lone Peak is now a designated wilderness area. There are no maintained trails.” He had climbed to Lone Peak 20 years earlier, exulting on the 11,253-foot peak, neglecting to take enough food or water, and making it back thanks to nice young hikers who noticed and shared. “Did you hear they just found a wolverine in those mountains? A wolverine! Here!” We had seen the story on the news, of game wardens in a helicopter filming a black wolverine racing through the snow in that wilderness. They trapped it without injury, anesthetized it, measured and weighed it, radio tagged it, then released it, excited to track its forest wanderings. Relatively little is known about wolverines, but the solitary aggressive carnivores often roam 15 miles a day in the most rugged mountain wilderness. “I just love sitting here looking at the mountain,” Dad said as I went in the house to cook dinner. He had me leave his tools outside, ready for tomorrow’s spring yard work.
(Pictured above, a view of Lone Peak, from YouTube, used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Dad and great-granddaughter Lila by the landscaped terrace and rock wall.
Courage at Twilight: Stringing Christmas Lights
While I cooked dinner, Dad dressed in his gray winter coat and his pom-pommed snow hat and stumbled outside with a bag of rolled up strings of Christmas lights and a hot glue gun, a bag of glue sticks in his pocket. The temperature dipped into the low 30s. I wondered at the hot glue gun, thinking hot glue would not work well in cold temperatures. After near an hour, I thought I had better check on him, to make sure he wasn’t collapsed and freezing. But there he was, painstakingly gluing the light string to the brick every six inches. He was nearly finished, gluing the last six feet to the wall. “I didn’t think the hot glue would work on cold brick,” I commented. “Actually, the glue works better in the cold, because it sets faster, and I can move on to the next spot.” Just then he let out an “Argghh!!” as he pressed a fingertip into a dollop of hot glue. “I seem to be gluing my fingers as much as the lights!” he cursed. I reached in and held down each newly glued spot until the glue hardened, while he moved ahead to the next. I dipped my finger into the hot glue myself, and I rubbed furiously against the cold brick to wipe the burning glue off. “I see what you mean,” I commiserated. With the last section in place, we extricated ourselves from the tangled bushes and stood back to observe. “You did a great job, Dad,” I complimented. The white LED lights climbed one end of the brick wall, ran along its adorned top, and ended at the base of the other end. The next day we wrapped red and green and amber lights around the boxwood bushes. “Let’s get your mom,” Dad enthused as the sun sank and the cold set in. Mom was duly impressed, “You men did a great job with the lights!” Every evening, Dad flips a switch by the front door, contended at the cheery beauty at the corner of the front yard.
Courage at Twilight: Emptying the Grass
The cut grass and Fall leaves from the riding mower shoots into two rear-mounted canvas bags, which Dad empties into a large plastic can lined with a plastic garbage bag. He thumbs two holes into the sides of the plastic to vent the vacuum and allow the grass to sink and settle. Mom ties the handles. Together they lift the can, heavy and with wet grass clippings, and dump the bag into the large trash container, which goes to the curb on Sunday night for Monday morning pickup. Several times, I lifted the heavy bag out of the can by myself, not to show off, but just to get it done—and I was strong enough to do it. In the following weeks, I found Dad bagging the grass himself and wrestling the can up to dump the bag into the trash container. I felt bad I had done it by myself and made him feel he needed to be able to do it by himself. When I ask if I can help him, he says, “I got it.” So, now I ask him to help me hoist the can up so we can share the effort of dumping the bag. No matter one’s relative personal strength, collaboration is often the best solution for all involved, young and old, and middle-aged.
Courage at Twilight: Shaping Bushes
Dad loves his yard care tools, especially the power tools. The only power tool we owned growing up in East Brunswick, New Jersey was the push mower, with no power drive, for the half-acre corner lot at 2 Schindler Court (named by the developer-friend of Mr. Schindler of Schindler’s List). Now Dad enjoys a set of DeWalt battery-powered tools, including one of his favorites, the hedge trimmer. He often trims the bushes nicely round. But the trimmer cannot grab and cut the shoots along the ground, and bending and kneeling is out of the question. I, on the other hand, can (barely) bend and (barely) kneel, and I like the small hand pruner. So while Dad shapes the bushes, I kneel on a cushioned pad and reach under the bushes to cut their runners and shoots, leaving a collection of uniquely and pleasantly shaped orbs. The hard-to-get-to places are the ones longest neglected, but turning attention and effort to them yields pleasing results. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.
Courage at Twilight: Missionary Work
I had intended to accept an invitation to gather with the men of the neighborhood to help an ill neighbor with yard work he could not do. “Bring your chainsaws,” the organizer goaded, “and show what real men you are.” I chuckled, knowing his heart was pure. As I sat with Dad in the back yard, however, and he talked about all the things he would like to accomplish in his yard, I decided to change course. I chose to stay home and help with his yardwork, which I suppose is my yardwork. An impish niggling voice accused me of being selfish for not helping the neighbor. But I shrugged it off and responded, “Nope. That is not my mission. This is my mission: to be here, to help here, to the end. This is missionary work.” And so I got to work pruning trees and weeding flower beds and yanking out the long Virginia creeper vines. A smile on Dad’s face, and his call of “Looks great!” confirmed what I already knew, and made me happy to be so engaged.
Courage at Twilight: Arctic Willow
The arctic willow bush tends to grow wildly, a thicket of unruly blue hair. And twigs die and turn brown in the midst, marring the uniform soft blue. Dad has always diligently pruned out the deadwood. This weekend he asked me if I would find that one elusive dead twig and cut it out. After a pine branch attacked me (see prior Pruning Pine Trees post), I wrestled my way into the willow tangle in search of brown. Like with the pine tree, once on the inside I found much invisible dead wood to cut out. I threw each brown branch onto the lawn, cut them up in short lengths, and filled an entire garbage can. Stepping back from the bush, there was that elusive brown twig still peeking through. Finally I found it. What a different removing the brown made to the quality of the blue. Nature is full of instructional principles, like how cutting out the dead keeps the living healthy and beautiful.
Courage at Twilight: Pruning Pine Trees
I ducked under Austrian Pine boughs to step around its trunk to prune the Arctic Willow. The blunt end of a lopped pine bough jabbed me hard and square on the temple. I swore, thanked God it wasn’t my eye, and trudged off for a saw to cut off the offending limb. Dad’s neighbor, Terry, regularly shapes the enormous Blue Spruce that sits just inside his property line. One day he decided the bottom boughs were too low, and cut them all off to a height of about eight feet. A little aggressive, I thought. But Dad chose to admire how the pruning had opened up the view of the neighboring yards, “park-like.” We looked at the Spruce’s companion Austrian pine on our side of the property line, and decided its bottom limbs drooped too low. We had to duck to walk under them, and Dad hit them when riding his lawn mower. He consented to me providing a “slight haircut” to the pine. Underneath their canopy, I discovered a mass of dead limbs invisible from outside. I lopped off all those I could reach. I carefully pruned the lowest hanging limbs, lifting the canopy bottom up a couple of feet. The result looked natural and less cluttered, bringing a better balance to the landscaping. Mom and Dad were really pleased. Following my normal clean-up routine, I snipped the boughs into short lengths that could be compacted into the garbage can, which these days seems to be filling up long before pick-up day.