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Thursday, October 10, 2002

Lilacs in the dooryard bloomed


In arid regions, the wise seek out plants that require very little water, the use of which is called "xeriscaping" -- whereas those who own a bit of marsh look for attractive water plants: lotuses, sedges, perhaps a bit of cress. Most gardeners in temperate zones, however, have a wide range of choices and possibilities. Accordingly, some will try everything -- from cacti to Louisiana irises -- and insist that the local setting bend to their will. Plants that have no business in northern climes are fussed over ad infinitum, wrapped against chill winds, covered, uncovered, covered again, and finally cursed for disloyally losing their green fingers to frostbite.

On any homestead, the wise will seek out plants that augment the site, not merely visually, but in ways that use what we know of sun and shade, soil, wind, and water, to enhance the lives of those living there and of lives yet to come. When they consider a tree or shrub, they look around them and think. They see not only the height of the plant and its breadth, but also the effect of its presence through time, of its youth, middle age, declining years and inevitable death. How will each affect its surroundings? Many times, the answers will be considerably less complicated to sort out if you will stick with the native species.

Every landscape, and every homestead, has a history, and from this history, if it is known or can be discovered, we can learn something about the site's present and future requirements. Our acre began in the distant past as alluvial deposits at the upper end of a vast glacial-era lake, which once lay, hundreds of feet deep, from here to where our river ends, over a hundred miles north.

When the lake drained away, leaving the river and its tributaries to collect the annual runoff in its place, billions of small round stones from the surrounding mountains, mostly of slow-weathering basalt, lay packed together in a matrix of clay particles for miles in all directions. Seeds, borne in by wind, water, and animals, quickly took root, and a forest sprang up, but one adapted to extremes of wet and dry, of shallow, nitrogen-starved soil, of major disturbances by fire and flood.

The dominant forest types were a mixed conifer forest of hemlock and western red cedar on the damp northern slopes, and Douglas fir along the ridges. On southern slopes, hot and dry in summer, an oak-madrone forest thrived, with an understory of poison oak at lower elevations, and of manzanita higher up. In the bottoms, a mix of cottonwood, ash, black cherry, and willow showed where the water ran along the bedrock, deep in the ground in summer, or became a surface torrent in winter.

The valley was popular with humans from their first appearance here, as a place to live and hunt. From the very first, though, they could never resist altering it to suit their needs. Fire was the agent chiefly used; the resulting clearings increased the supply of grasses and fruiting shrubs, which led to an increase in game both small and large, as well as increasing security by providing less cover for marauders from rival tribes.

Our acre, however, remained forested -- part of a vast tract of Douglas firs that survived in the upper valley until the first Europeans arrived with their steel teeth.

A family of settlers, late arrivals, staked out three hundred twenty acres, and dreamed of putting in, as so many others who had staked out the ancient clearings, wheat -- but didn't have the manpower to clear great swaths of the fir forest at once. So they went into the woodlot business, always whipsawing enough cordwood to meet the bills -- they contracted to provide all the fuel for the one-room schoolhouses for miles around -- but never quite enough to put in wheat.

Lilacs in the dooryard bloomed, but never far from shade.

It took almost three generations for the land to be anything but a stump ranch, and by then farming had become something of a luxury occupation. Filberts could make money, or grass seed could, but it took money to get started, and these were a people too proud, or too honest, to gamble with other people's money. Bit by bit the old home place was broken up, first into four farms, then eight, then twenty. Fences were built along boundary lines, and along the fences spread, first blackberries, then trees. Not firs; though they love sun, those do not usually travel far in open pasture land. These trees were the Oregon ash, black cherry, willow, and cottonwood of the river's edge, working their way uphill along the margins of the annual floods. Also there were, and had always been, patches of great California black oaks, bearded with moss and lichens like live oaks in the hammocks of old Florida.

The ashes, however, predominated. There were second growth ash trees until recently over much of the property, all about two feet in diameter, with the broad growth rings of open-grown timber. The last owner before us, however, fell upon hard times, and felt obliged to convert them into firewood, following the precedent of the pioneers.

Upon our arrival we found all the good shade -- oak, maple, and ash -- on the north side of the house, where it would do least good. To the south and west, where shade would be needed when the summer sun reached the nineties, were mostly stumps.

All was not lost. Oaks, when cut, will not regenerate, but ashes will, and the stumps to the west were all ash. I cleared away the blackberries and the burned cans and tire-wire loops left over from bonfires that the stumps had been subjected to, and watered the stumps. My neighbor, ever alert, was not long in stopping by.

"Morning, ma'am." He watched the water pouring over the stump. I tried to distract him.

"Good morning, sir; lovely day, yes?"

"Mm."

"Have our geese been too noisy for you yet?"

"Mm? Naahh."

"I have noticed your roses, sir. They're coming along nicely."

"Aaahh, I dunno." He gazed steadily at the stream of water coursing over the blackened stump. I could already envision him going back into the house, shaking his head the whole way, and telling his wife what her neighbor was up to this time, but I was forgetting that he had been raised in the family that planted the old lilacs. He looked at me sharply.

"Ash, huh?"

"Yessir, ash."

"Might work." And then he went back in.

The stumps eventually put out shoots, though one of them waited three years. I chose the strongest shoot from each stump, and flagged it, cutting back the others with pruners. One of these shoots is now over ten feet tall. Ash is a quick wood, quick to rise but also quick to fall, as trees go. But I won't live to see the end of this.

On the south side I would have to be more creative. But I had something going for me.

The northwest corner of the property has been allowed, over time, to go native, and is the haunt of wild things: ferns, quail. Someone had planted a bigleaf maple, a generation ago, by the northwest corner of the house, and some of its seeds had helicoptered into the protected zone and flourished. The bigleaf (acer macrophylum) is a native and can be found all along the river and on the mountainsides, too, mostly at lower altitudes. It's also fast growing, and though short-lived compared to, say, an oak, like the ash it's an ideal tree for a short-timer like me who needs shade in her own lifetime.

I flagged a few of the likelier saplings and waited for winter.

On a stormy day after leaf drop, when the maples had gone to sleep, I stole into their sanctuary with a shovel and dug about beneath their feet. One by one, I lifted them, with what little soil would cling to their surprisingly skimpy roots, into a wheelbarrow, and carted them around to the south side of the house.

You can't do this with all trees. I have awful luck moving oaks of any size; the acorn puts a taproot down to the day of Creation as soon as it awakes, and woe unto her that disturbs it at its dinner. Oaks will die if you so much as look at them while carrying a digging tool in hand. The bigleaf maple is much more generous.

Make a hole, stick it in.

Well, it's a good idea to keep the sod back, to add some peat, to stake it for a year or two, and to water generously the first couple of summers, but once it's established the bigleaf will make itself at home --

-- so much so that you will want to put it twenty feet from the house, if you want the next generation not to call down curses upon your head. Not that I pay more than lip service to the idea myself; mine are twelve feet from the house.

Pretty things, though.

And while they aren't shading the wall yet, on a hot day I can go out and lie contentedly in their shade -- sort of.

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