Friday, January 04, 2008

Gardening with Hubris

When we bought our house in Wheaton, I was very excited for the opportunity to create my own landscaping. I'd long been fascinated with prairies and it was my dearest wish to recreate a prairie in our backyard. I wanted to see tall grass billowing in the breeze and butterflies frolicking in wildflowers. I wanted to use native plants and I didn't want to be a slave to the suburban imperative of keeping grass short and unnaturally green.

I signed up for a prairie gardening class at a local community college, but it was cancelled for lack of interest. Undeterred, I bought some books and started planning the prairie garden of my dreams. I pictured in my head what I wanted - a sturdy grass for the main part of the lawn, a tall grass for the bottom border, and a wildflower garden on the side.

For our main lawn, I selected buffalo grass for its hearty, drought-resistant nature. To use as the screen and ornamental lining along the fence at the bottom of the yard, I selected a variety of bluestem tall grass that tops out between 7 and 10 feet. Then I found some suitable wildflower mixture for the flower garden. These all fit perfectly into my vision of the lawn.

I dutifully looked at what the plants needed to survive - they all required a lot of sunlight. One book suggested that I carefully watch the yard over the course of several days and map out the availability of sunlight. I didn't so this. Our property faced east we had a line of trees along the south side. The north side was home to one big tree and a few smaller ones. Even so, I thought that it would be okay - that the few hours of sunlight in the morning would be enough to carry my plants through.

All winter, I plotted and thought and waited for my opportunity to change the yard to my vision. In the spring, I spent several weekends pulling up small trees and clearing out a nasty thicket of thorny bushes and weeds at the bottom of the yard. When all of the undesirable plants were removed, it was time to enact my battle plan.

I arranged for the rental of a moving van, which I used to collect some heavy-duty machinery from the local tool rental place. I rented some sort of monstrosity to take up the existing lawn and also rented a rototiller. I bought vast quantities of top soil and brought it all home.

My first snag was the grass-ripper-outer. I just didn't have the strength or confidence to operate it. Peter was drafted into my project and he did a great job getting all the grass ripped up. He also taught me how to use the rototiller and sternly lectured me about safety. He had a helicopter lesson, so I was on my own.

The rototilling was slow going because our house was situated on land that nearly became a quarry instead of a residential area. The house was built on solid bedrock and it was impossible to dig even the smallest hole without finding rocks the size of my head. My rototilling involved a lot of starting and stopping, so I could clear the rocks.

When I was nearly done, I felt something was wrong with the rototiller. I didn't hear anything and it seemed to still be running, but I just has a bad feeling. I stopped, shut the machine off and waited until the blades were still. When I lifted up the machine to look at the blades, one them fell off with a thunk. Had I not stopped when I did, the blade could have flown off the back and kneecapped me. I was forced to return the rototiller and finish the rest by hand - it was an area the size of a large sedan.

Then came the fun part, laying the seed and the top soil and then dragging a board over it to smooth everything out. This whole project ended up taking the whole weekend and left me absolutely exhausted. I had a little bit of a bad feeling, since I hadn't been able to get the ground completely smooth, but I was sure that would be the only glitch in my plan.

The next few weeks were a dreadful pain - full of a lot of watering and waiting and worrying. Finally, the small sprouts of green in the main lawn started to grow. And grow. And grow. But it was strange because they didn't look like blades of grass. They looked like weeds. Lots and lots of weeds. Broad leafed weeds and straggly weeds, dandelions and thistles. Clover. Our yard was not discriminating - any weed could apply.

What we didn't have a lot of was buffalo grass. Turns out, when they say that buffalo grass needs sun, it needs A LOT of sun. Like ten to fifteen hours a day of sun. The two hours of direct sunlight and ten hours of leaf-dappled filtered sunlight were not cutting it at all.

I couldn't will my perfect prairie garden into existence, as hard as I tried. I just didn't have the right canvas. It was like trying to paint with oils on watercolour paper - messy, ugly, and frustrating. If I'd ever stopped to really look at the complete picture of a prairie, instead of fixating on the pretty parts, I'd have realised what was missing - trees. You can have a prairie or you can have a forest, you can't really have both. In my desire to create the picture in my head, I'd forgotten that our backyard was more forest than open meadow.

The lesson learned in my back yard in Wheaton - there are some things that I cannot bend to my will. Some things are entirely outside my control. It's too bad that I had to destroy my backyard to figure this out.


At 4 January 2008 at 17:58, Blogger Kaycie said...

I can imagine how frustrating it was to do all that work just to figure out you've miscalculated. Luckily, it's usually a lesson you just have to learn once.

If you want prairie, come visit me. We're just a couple of hours away from a tallgrass praire reserve, complete with buffalo.

At 4 January 2008 at 18:14, Blogger The Rotten Correspondent said...

Obviously my head cold is still hanging on, because I read this all the way through thinking you tried this in Ireland. And I wanted to say, uh, ann, honey?

Then I saw Wheaton and went DUH. Okay, I'm back on track now.

What a nightmare. And you did your homework, too. All except for that nasty light thing. Prairies are weird. We're in the middle of prairie-ville and I love them. But they aren't as effortless as you would think.

I have a friend who has 200+ acres and has turned about 100 of them back into "natural prairie land". Here the state will pay you to do this, which I think is interesting. Well, she had a hell of a time because stuff didn't want to take. The prairie grasses didn't want to grow on the prairie. What the hell?

She's got it worked out now and it is drop dead gorgeous, but it took time.

What was your next garden project? I'm betting smaller.Hat's off - you're braver than I am.

At 4 January 2008 at 20:55, Blogger laurie said...

you are one determined woman, -ann.
extremely determined. i'm glad you weren't knee-capped by the rototiller. that would have, um, limited your running/camogie career.

if Wheaton is anything like St. Paul, it wouldn't have mattered if the buffalo grass had grown or not; the city would have required it mown down. you can't have 8-foot-tall lawns in the city.

that would have been a more heartbreaking end to your story than the one you had.

At 6 January 2008 at 12:29, Blogger Terri said...

Did you ever consider trying to learn things the easy way..?
You certainly are an industrious lady, Ann. Me, I'd happily pay someone else to do the hard labour. Or not pay someone like Hubby to do it - even better.

At 9 January 2008 at 19:48, Blogger -Ann said...

Kaycie - Ooooh - next time in Oklahoma (ok, the first time I'm in Oklahoma), I'm totally going to take you up on that offer. :)

RC - Ha! Although, had I not had the Wheaton experience, I might very well have blundered into something like that. For example, I really want to grow sweet corn and giant pumpkins, but I've been paralysed with indecision about it because I'm worried that such plants aren't really suited to the Irish climate.

My current gardening project is my kitchen herb garden - right now, I have oregano, basil, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and a mint plant that just might take over the world if I'm not careful.

Laurie- Argh, that would have been awful, although only the very back grass was going to be that tall.

Terri - I don't believe in the easy way. :)


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