Thursday, July 14, 2016

Landscaping Project Leads to Root of the Matter

(From the July 14, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It seemed like a big project. But not that big.

We had decided to take down eight large pine trees. We would replace them with a variety of plants that would be smaller but still provide a privacy screen and also have the benefit of blooms.

We did not figure on the roots.

The project started in early June when a tree company came to take out the pines. I came home from teaching a summer class about noon planning to watch this event. I was shocked that they were almost done already.

My wife and father-in-law and several neighbors told me how amazing it was to watch eight large pine trees get cut down, put through the chipper, have their stumps ground and all get cleaned up with such efficiency. I was delighted to have the work done so quickly.

It also gave me pause. These pines had been on the property when we moved into the house almost 20 years ago. You might say they had grown up with us. I remember moving snow and almost covering one of them. We had for a time planted wildflowers in between them, but there was no room for them now. All manner of birds enjoyed refuge among their elegant boughs. They provided privacy for the back yard of our corner lot.

But recently they had become problematic. I had to trim them to allow people to walk the sidewalk. Their needles seemed to be falling more abundantly. It turned out this was due to a fungus that would have them all dead in a few more years. I also was frustrated by their roots lifting bricks on the patios and walkways and even disturbing fence posts.

The roots. That should have been a clue.

With the removal of the trees and my momentary reflection on their loss, I was eager to get on with our project. The tree service did their thing, it was time for my wife and I to get to work. We had plans! And we felt a little exposed with 40-foot evergreens suddenly gone.

But before we could plant we had to prepare the ground. I borrowed a friend’s roto tiller to loosen the hardened soil. This was also helpful to remove networks of fibrous roots all along the surface. But this was just the beginning. As we worked we found numerous deeper and thicker roots. There were long, sinewy networks of overlapping cables. As we pulled these we came upon numerous roots as large as tree limbs. It was a plethora of pithy, piney projections preventing us from planting!

We had to dig under them. We had to painstakingly saw them out. It was hot, sweaty, dirty work. At one point, after excising a particularly pesky and thick root, I held it up and exalted: “the root of all evil!” A neighborhood kid asked me if one was a mastodon bone. I told him yes, it was actually a tusk. Nearby neighbors and regular dog walkers came by and commented that we were working hard. As if we didn’t know.

We filled our yard waste dumpster multiple times and borrowed those of several neighbors just to dispose of the roots. We finally were able to plant. Where there were eight tall pines on three sections of our property there are now weeping cherry, hydrangea, lilac, holly, and a row of rhododendron. We took great care when planting to consider soil makeup, add fertilizer, and water appropriately. We want these new plants to take root. It would only be fair.

While toiling on all this on and off for a month, it was easy for my mind to wander metaphorically about roots. People are like trees. I think of our former neighbors, who uprooted themselves two years ago to move to Florida. It is hard work to uproot. But we saw them again this summer. You can never remove all the roots.

I thought of us, moving to this community 18 years ago. It took a while for us to lay down roots. For several years we could go all over the Tri-Cities and never see anyone we knew. Now that is, happily, impossible. Just last weekend we went for a 5-mile run that took twice as long as it should have because we stopped our run to talk to two men  we have come to know over the years, chatting in their driveways.

People also are like trees in that we can’t always see what lies beneath the surface. We don’t know the extent or depth of their roots, which are their source of nourishment or possibly the cause of their distress. As in landscaping, when working with people it is wise to consider roots before planning to plant.


As for our landscaping project, it is finished. We enjoy it now, and we appreciate the compliments and congratulations from neighbors and dog walkers. We saved the biggest roots to place atop the mulch, alongside the plants and decorative boulders as artful reminders of what once lay beneath. We should never forget our roots.