Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ding dong, the bush is dead

When we first bought this house, nine years ago, one of the features we weren't so thrilled with was the wide assortment of shrubs in the front yard. In addition to a hedge on one side of the yard and another bordering the sidewalk, there were a total of seven bushes in front of the house—all of them too big for the spots they were in, and some so large that they obstructed the windows.

So, over the intervening years, we've gradually been getting rid of them. The first to go was a firethorn bush that stood right next to the front porch railing, ready to lash out at unsuspecting visitors with its vicious thorns. Next we took out the forsythia that was crowded up against the evergreen bush in front. Four years ago, we took down the small hedge in front, opening up the view and making more room for our creeping phlox to spread. And in 2013, we finally took the plunge and completely cleared out the remaining bushes on the left side of the house to make room for our new flower bed.

Sadly, the flowers weren't a scintillating success. We discovered this spring that the overambitious bachelor's buttons (aka cornflowers) had not only reseeded themselves once again, they had almost completely taken over the bed, making it impossible to see any of the other flowers. Eventually we went in and pulled them all out, leaving only a patchy, motley assortment scattered across the bed and straying well beyond its borders. So we think next year we'll have to start over with a different wildflower seed blend, such as this all perennial mix that has no pesky cornflowers.

However, the other side of the stoop—our herb garden—was looking much better. It had started back in 2010 with the gift of a sage plant from a couple of friends who had a large one in their yard that had produced a smaller offspring they didn't have room for. We planted that, along with a modest little thyme plant we'd picked up at the annual Rutgers plant sale, in a gap between the big bushes next to the side stoop.

These two plants grew and spread so fast that we soon had to clear out the smallest bush to make more room for them, and we gradually started tucking more herbs in wherever we could make room for them. We slipped a small oregano plant in between the two largest bushes, and its tendrils, searching for sunlight, quickly sprawled out so far that they took over half the front walk. We also popped some mint into the space right next to the steps—normally a risky thing to do, since this plant is highly aggressive and can easily take over an entire yard, but we figured in this confined space it couldn't really do any harm. If it wanted to fill in all the space not currently occupied by other plants, that was a-okay with us.

Last fall, we made a little more room in the herb patch by removing the wider of the two bushes on that side of the house—mostly because we were fed up with how it got in our way every time we tried to shovel snow in the winter. This spring, we took advantage of all that extra space by putting in two new rosemary plants that we'd started from seed, as well as a tiny little thyme plant to replace our old one, which had apparently smothered under all that snow. That left a nice open spot in the front that I was considering using for some marshmallow plants—but the seed packet warned that these can grow to around 3 feet tall, and I didn't want to end up with the same problem we'd had in the flowerbed, with a bunch of tall plants obscuring the view of the smaller ones. So we decided it was finally time to remove that last large bush, creating some room in the back for the new plants.

So, last weekend, Brian got to work with an assortment of tools. First he used clippers to trim off all the branches and get the bush down to a manageable size; then he got out the folding saw and sawed off the main trunk, leaving only a stump. Then he tried to root out the stump with our two big shovels, the hefty King of Spades and the wickedly sharp Structron Super Shovel (both gifts from his brother), only to discover that the trunk was actually growing sideways below the soil surface and had to be cut away before the stump could come out. So he basically ended up digging out all the dirt around this horizontal trunk and then cutting it away with the saw. This Herculean task, coupled with cutting off and bundling up all the branches from the bush to be hauled away, took most of the day—but it left us, at long last, with a nice, clear area on that side of the house.

We were planning to put the marshmallows in right away, but after doing a little research online about how to space the plants, I found that they'll probably fare better if they're planted in the late summer or early fall, so the cold weather can help split open the seeds. So we're holding off on that until late August, and for now we've just covered up the area with the last of the mulch we picked up from the co-op last May.

And so, for the first time since we bought the house, we can actually see the entire front of it, unobstructed by any big bushes. The herb bed isn't complete yet, and neither is the flowerbed we want to end up with on the left side of the door—but at least you can see where they're both supposed to go. And in place of all those big, ill-trimmed bushes, we have our three new plum trees, which will provide us with fruit (at least if they don't suffer from brown rot again) and, eventually, summer shade. All in all, a much more practical and sustainable landscape—and a prettier one to boot.
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