Sunday, September 23, 2012

Edible landscaping, stage 1

Well, we have officially thrown our caps over the wall as regards this edible landscaping project. Yesterday, we drove all the way out to Rumson to buy a small electric chipper/shredder from a guy on Craigslist. (He was originally asking $35 for it, but he graciously dropped his price to $30 when the machine proved a little finicky upon testing.) The purpose of this purchase is to ecofrugally convert waste—leaves and brush—into useful mulch for the garden and flowerbeds. But in order to get our money's worth out of it, we knew we'd have to generate a large volume of leaves and brush in the near future. In other words, by making this purchase, we pretty much committed ourselves to embarking on stage one of our edible landscaping project: taking down the massive forsythia hedge in our back yard to make room for some bush cherries.

So today, we spent a big chunk of the afternoon outside with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction, hacking away at the forsythia monster. I didn't remember to get a picture of it before we started cutting it down, but this picture shows what was left of it after we'd removed the first few bushes—so just visualize the same thing, only extending about 20 feet, and you'll have an idea of the scope of this project. I went after the low-hanging branches with the clippers, clearing them away to give Brian a clear shot at the main trunks, which he sawed off with our garden handsaw. (This tool, a gift from my brother-in-law, is wickedly sharp and folds up for storage—rather like this one, although it's not exactly the same model. It's an incredibly useful tool, but it has to be handled with extreme caution. I don't doubt it could saw off an arm if it really had to.) Within an hour or so, we'd reduced the whole mass to stumps, which Brian is working on rooting out with our heavy-duty spade—another gift from the same brother-in law. (It's known as the King of Spades, and well worthy of the title. This thing cuts through anything. It's also the only tool I've tried that really works for chipping thick ice off the sidewalk in winter.)

So now we're left with a huge pile of brush, which we're leaving to dry for a bit before we attempt to put it through our new chipper. We figure it'll take a couple hours more just to break it all up into bite-sized chunks and feed it through, but it should still be less work than attempting to bundle it all up (in bunches no more than 4 feet in length and 18 inches in diameter, as required by our local Department of Public Works) for curbside collection. Sadly, the stubby little stumps with their little tendrils of roots hanging off them are both too short to be bundled and too tough to go in our light-duty chipper, so they'll most likely end up going out with the regular trash. It seems like a terrible waste of organic material, but unfortunately, I can't think of any way to put them to better use (unless perhaps we can offer them to a friend with a fireplace as firewood with its own built-in kindling).

Now our biggest problem is actually getting our hands on the bush cherries we want to go in the empty space we've managed to clear. While the term "bush cherry" can be applied to a variety of different species, including Hansen's bush cherry (Prunus besseyi) and Nanking bush cherry (Prunus tomentosa), the kind we want is Meader bush cherries, a cross between Prunus jacquemonti and Prunus japonica. These four-foot bushes are specifically recommended in one of my favorite gardening books, The Weekend Garden Guide by Susan A. Roth, which is all about how to create a beautiful garden that you won't have to spend so much time maintaining that you never get to enjoy it. Roth loves these bushes because they produce fruit "almost indistinguishable in flavor from the beloved pie cherry," yet they are incredibly easy to care for: drought-tolerant, easy to prune, resistant to powdery mildew and Japanese beetles, and short enough to be covered with bird netting (although Roth notes that it probably isn't necessary, since these trees produce fruit in the autumn, and birds tend to ignore red berries that late in the year). So this really sounds like the ideal fruit plant for inexperienced (and/or lazy) gardeners.

The problem is that despite its myriad advantages, this variety doesn't actually seem to be all that popular, and most nurseries don't carry it. We planned to order them from St. Lawrence Nurseries, but the snag is that you can't actually order them directly through their website; you have to e-mail them to request a copy of their catalogue and then order from that. Unfortunately, they caution that "During the months of May through October, we are outdoors doing fieldwork or chores for most of the daylight hours" and "may sometimes get behind on emails," although they do promise to "get back to you eventually." Apparently "eventually" takes at least a week to arrive, because I e-mailed them once last Monday and a second time on Thursday and I have yet to hear back from them. I'm trying not to fret, but I can't help wondering what to do if October rolls around and they still haven't gotten back to us. Having taken the plunge and torn out the forsythias, I really want to get our new plants in before winter comes. So how long do I wait before trying to find another source for these cherries? And for that matter, where can I find another source? The only other websites I've found that theoretically list them for sale don't actually have a link to purchase them; Edible Landscaping says to "contact our office to see about availability," and Rolling River Nursery says to "Enter your e-mail to be notified when this product becomes available again." Why on earth is this incredibly useful, easy-care plant so hard to find?

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