I thought I’d take advantage of a weekend of returning hot flashes and venture into the chilly spring weather for a little yard maintenance. Better now than on a sunny day, when I’ll have more pressing things to do, like chase squirrels away from my strawberries.
My yard is divided into many areas of concern: an expanded vegetable and fruit garden, far from manicured lawn and Asian garden motif complete with pond. (We inherited the pond from previous owners.) I’ve been plugging away at the Asian garden for years, and it’s finally coming together.
Our house was built in 1927 and many of the trees and shrubs were planted at the same time. The oaks are older than that, and, I take it, pre-dated our neighborhood. These original trees and shrubs are the bane of my existence. Although we are only the fourth owners of this house, it appears that little shrubbery maintenance was performed over the last 80 years, leaving us with a tangle of aging sticks someone once called bushes.
Overgrown bushes are not a pretty sight. The first year here, I tried (in vain) to dig out an enormous and completely unruly golden forsythia, one of two miscreants on the property. Little did I know that the offending shrub, now a balled-up tangle of sucker shoots and dead limbs, had been in residence longer than I have been alive. The bush won the initial battle, but I won the war. A handyman with two friends and a backhoe took care of that thing.
On the other side of the yard was the forsythia’s sister. It’s over eight feet tall and ten feet wide, but has a shapelier form. I decided to keep that one, and began to trim it back. But the bush pushed back, making me more and more angry. I ruined two mediocre shears on that one, before becoming super-pissed, when I took a small hacksaw and began to chop willy-nilly.
The result was horrifying. The shrub looked much like my daughter did when she decided to give herself a haircut in preschool – not presentable at all. Unlike my daughter, who needed a quick trip to Fantastic Sam’s for a little adjustment, I gave up on Forsythia. Besides, the &$*@# bush was in the far reaches of the back yard, where I could choose to ignore it until the following spring, when its blaze of yellow flowers would remind me once again that the bush was in the lead.
During my recent gardening forays, a friend of mine pointed me toward the Japanese Garden Journal. Needing big time help in the Asian garden department, I decided to subscribe to Sukiya Living, their magazine for Japanese gardening enthusiasts.
Sukiya gardeners are hardcore and discriminating when it comes to design. If it’s not what the gardeners do in Japan, it’s not a Japanese garden. Being Nisei myself, there is nothing I can do to make myself more Japanese than I am, and besides, I’m an American. (Thus, I use the term “Asian” instead of “Japanese” to describe my garden.) I color outside of the lines on a regular basis. I have too many lanterns and not enough rocks and I use some plants that are no-nos, but that's because I enjoy them.
The one rule I do subscribe to with regard to Japanese gardening is that of trimming trees and shrubs. The Western train of thought is to hack and hack away. Heck, even I was told to trim from the outside in. Hacking releases some energy and is a good plan of attack if you are molding a hedge or creating a topiary. My husband has a gas-powered hedge trimmer that is great for the slice and dice. Hacking, however, is a bad plan for shaping.
Shaping requires a nice set of hand shears, deep thought about the plant, and a lot more time.
The first task is to take out all of the dead wood. That’s right, chop it all off. It’s not coming back, no matter how much you want it to, and there will always be dead growth, especially in the upper Midwest where winters can be brutal. Cut it out so that what remains can use up the energy. The second item on the agenda is to cut back all of the sucker growth. Again, valuable plant energy is wasted on these outliers.
The third and most important thing to do is to get inside of the shrub and trim from the inside out. Weird, I know. However, it’s the only way you can see what’s going on. Being on the inside means you can get all of the dead matter and you can also see how the plant is growing, which way the sun comes in, etc. Circle the plant so you can catch every perspective.
There are several other smaller rules I adhere to: for one thing, I trim off any growth that points downward. I also take off any stems that cross each other.
Doing this means there will be a huge pile of waste. My husband is always upset by the looks of it and questions me every year.
For some reason, the Zen approach seems to work much better than the slasher theory. I was amazed to find that my trees and shrubs needed much less trimming this year than in previous years, and the plants look terrific.
I was standing inside Forsythia this morning musing about this fact. Forsythia and I are not pals, but we are cordial relatives. I then realized I don’t like my trees and shrubs to touch each other. How can I enjoy them if they are crowding each other, vying for attention? Then my mind wandered to how I don’t like my food items to touch each other on the dinner plate and how smart the Japanese were to invent bento boxes. Then I thought about my son, who not only doesn’t like his food to touch, he will eat one menu item at a time and doesn’t mix them. Then I went back to thinking this was the first time all weekend when I didn’t feel like I was suffering in the sauna of my own skin.
This, my friends, is the Zen of shrubbery maintenance.