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Monday, September 13, 2010

Ball & Burlap: The Ties that Bind and Break Our Backs

Every so often, I get this incredible desire to live vicariously through someone else's garden. Well, I was in such a mood the other week when I was helping my friend Nancy with her business and said, "Gee Nancy, while I'm up here why don't we take advantage of this opportunity and do a plant nursery tour and possibly get some trees and shrubs for your yard."

Nancy, and her husband Jim have several acres in the county outside of Bellingham. They also needed some landscaping help; their yard consisted of arborvitae and rhododendrons in full sun. OK, to be fair, there are some Japanese maples and small conifers next to the front entrance to the house.

She agreed that her yard needed some livening up. Jim reiterated on several occasions that that their yard is paved with good intentions because Nancy has killed many a potted nursery specimen by not getting to the 'planting it in the ground' part. So, the agreement was that whatever we got, I had to help her plant it. No problem. Part two of the agreement consisted of not planting anywhere that would interfere with Jim's plans for that spot and to make sure that what we plant in the lower turf area likes very wet feet, as the ground is very waterlogged much of the year. Other than that, we could do what we wanted, in which I interpreted spend what we wanted. Nancy, though, is a bit of a fiscal conservative and had a budget in mind.

So, off we went to explore the nurseries with a list of trees and shrubs that I thought would work well in her yard and (I have to admit) were some of my favorites. The first place we went to, Cloud Mountain Nursery, near Everson, was not far from her house. It's a grower operation, so the prices were really good. Many of the large trees were under $100. We picked out a Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum), Katsura (Cercidiphyllum Japonicum), Double-File Viburnum (Vibernum plicatum var. tomentosum), and a Golden Dawn Redwood (Metasaquoia glyptostroboides spp.) that happened to be half off because it was so root bound. Nancy, (having a Human Services background) felt compelled to save that tree. This nursery didn't have any Bald Cypresses (Taxodium distichum) for the mushy parts of the yard, so she paid for what we picked out and put them in will-call. Off we went to Kent's Garden and Nursery on Northwest Road.

Kent's had the Bald Cypress, but Nancy chose to hold off on those at the moment. Instead, she found the clearance section and ended up with 3 Western Red Cedars, a Montpilier Maple (Acer monspessulanum), and several Smoke Trees (Continus coggygria). The next day we explored Bear Creek Nursery, south of town. This nursery is situated in a most lovely setting among Douglas Fir trees. They also had the signature tree we were looking for: Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia'. However, while we were walking around, Nancy became very adamant about not buying anything that day. Every time I showed her a cool looking plant, her reaction was, "I'm not buying anything today!" in between, "Did we get that yet?" However, after an hour of proclamations, she was the proud owner of the Frisia Locust and a lovely Japanese maple.

Nancy spent the week picking up her finds with the family pick-up and I came up this last weekend to help her plant them all per our agreement. I also brought up several free specimens that I had procured from various sources that would have been to big for my yard.

Of all the days to plant, we picked the one day all summer that would rain all day! In fact, the weather went from a soggy drizzle to a down pour then back to a soggy drizzle, never completely stopping. But, that was the day we could both plant, so we got on our ad-hoc rain togs and out we went with shovels in hand.

We started with the Katsuras, which were still sitting in the back of the pick up. Nancy had originally purchased one, but when she went to pick up her plants, she purchased another one being enchanted by their amazing fall foliage. They were in ball and burlap, but you couldn't tell, as the root ball had busted through from sitting in the nursery mulch and became this mass of tangled roots and mulch a good 36" in diameter. Of course the things also weighed the earth! And of course the nursery loaded them into the pick-up with a fork lift, a luxury we didn't have. Luckily, Nancy and Jim own a riding lawn mower with a small dump trailer attachment. So, with the reluctant help of the fellas, we all heaved the things over, one tree at a time and rolled them off the truck bed onto the mower trailer and then gently dumped them near where they were to get planted. The rest of the operation would involve bruit girly force as the men retreated to the basement man cave to play with power tools. Wimps.

In digging very large holes, we were getting sufficiently wet and muddy as the rain began to come down in torrents. I found myself blindly swinging a Mattock while looking through dripping, steaming glasses (a foot down into the ground lay hard pan - gotta love NW glacial till!). I finally gave up with the glasses and stuffed them into a pocket. I figured I could see better without them. I gave up on my hood as it was restricting my movement, so lived with dripping hair. The weather wasn't that cold, just very wet and I was actually sweating from excursion. While peeling back the burlap around the roots, I tried to remove some metal ties, but proceeded to break the handle on Roland's Mattock and had to borrow Jim's (with instructions not to break it). Nancy brought out some wire cutters to remove the metal clips from their grip and we managed to spread out the burlap after rolling the trees into their respective holes. Of course, the holes are never deep enough when you think they are, so the whole exercise involved a sort of an sizing procedure, pulling out the trees, picking and digging a deeper pit, adding compost and then dragging the trees back into the pit, twisting and turning them so the best side faces the out and then filling in the holes. Tape measures would have instantly useless in this weather. We improvised with shovel handles and thumbs for measurements. An hour later, we had planted our first two trees.

After the Katusuras, planting got a little easier as we developed a rhythm and a certain soggy level of efficiency. Plus the potted stuff weighed less. We took turns with the pick and shovel and Nancy became the official compost bag schlep. I would move on to the next hole, while Nancy filled in the current one. The fellas were having a great time from their dry location under the deck, shouting at us their occasional opinions and advice such as, "It's crooked."

After the Katsuras, we planted an iddy-biddy Red Bud (Cercis canadensis) along the same row. The hole actually became somewhat wide as we had to put landscape edging around it so Mr. Jim would mow it down. Next came the Dawn Redwood out at the top of the field where the ground wasn't too soggy and would drain. After that we planted a conifer of questionable pedigree. Nancy was told that it was a Douglas Fir, but Roland thought it was something else because the needles weren't Doug Fir needles. Regardless, it was one of the examples of good intentions and needed to get into the ground.

The best gardening tool I've ever purchased has to be my Hori Hori. I've used that knife for weeding and in this case, for rescuing roots bound like a Chinese woman's foot. I carried it right next to my pruners in which as the day wore on, weighed my elastic waist banded pants down around my knees as the rain soaked in and they became as heavy as lead. Really, I don't know how rappers can walk. Also, I was fearing the plumber's southern exposure. Because I was having to pull them up with wet, muddy gloves on, my bloomers underneath were getting a natural earthy patina. The optimist in me didn't consider bringing rain pants, but I would have sweated like a sauna in them anyway. My water proof garden clogs filled with water. I was sloshing around in saturated wool socks, rubber garden clogs, with my britches around my knees, digging holes in the pouring rain in order to help my friend plant 100 pound trees. This was my idea and I was loving every minute of it.

Nancy thought she'd fair better having tucked her pants into rubber boots. Her pants just wicked the water right down into the boots and she was sloshing around by mid day. Plus her back side got sufficiently soaked having sat on a mower seat exposed to the elements.

We systematically planted the Smoke trees, Mock Orange and Maples right along the fence, having to move a good 4 inches of mulch, cut the landscape cloth and netting from the former sod and dig into more sand and clay (that looked the color of baby poo), add compost then plant the trees and move the mulch back in place. Next came the Locust.

We planted this tree in the upper yard next to the fence and in front of a mass of Douglas Firs that were leftovers from an old Christmas tree farm. The beautiful gold foliage of the Frisia just pops in front of the dark green of the conifers. It's the tree your eyes immediately go to when approaching the house. The location was a mother to plant in as the ground was hard and full of large rocks. We had to really amend the soil well and add additional water as, unlike other areas of the yard, this spot was pretty dry.

The fellas became rather impressed as they thought we would wimp out for sure and request their assistance. Upon the risk of never living it down, we did get the fellas to take a tree saw to some of the higher branches on the firs to make room for the locust to grow. They looked like they needed something to do as they couldn't continue with their project in the wet weather. Nancy and I felt sorry for them.

After planting the 3 cedars, we transplanted a Japanese Laceleaf maple that had been 'temporarily' planted in with its pot for several years and had manged to root through the drain holes. After finally planting the last Japanese maple we considered our day done - after clean up. When the last tool got cleaned and put away, the rain stopped.

We planted or transplanted 18 trees and shrubs in all, starting our day at around 9:30 in the morning and stopping at 5:30. We never took a lunch break nor for me, a potty break as I knew I would never be able to get my rain and mud soaked britches back up and gloves back on. We stripped in the appropriately named 'mud room' and headed straight for the shower.

During dinner that evening, Nancy proclaimed, "I'm never going shopping with Debra again!"

I replied, "You lie like a rug. Besides, we still need to get the Bald Cypresses, Mountain Ashes, and Kousa dogwood, never mind transplanting some of the rhodies behind the Frisia and moving those Daphnes to a sunny location."

I also have endless ideas for her birthday now and nurseries offer gift certificates.


  1. Oh Debra,
    This was such a WET day! The tress all look so beautiful now, and we walk around and check on them often! The Japanese tree we got is a vibrant red orange now --
    Thanks so much! When should we go get the Bald Cypresses? I'm ready to tackle that now!
    Love, Nancy

  2. The two of you will never forget that day. And when I get out to see your work, I will appreciate every bit of effort you put into it. Can hardly wait to see it!


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