Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I am supposed to be able to garden now.  It's late September and I really should be back at school.... oh, apologies to Rod Stewart but I'm addled right now.  I've spent 2 hours in my front yard with a pointed shovel and four 3-gallon plants and I am no closer to having them in the ground than I was before I started.

It is not for lack of effort, I assure you.  I waited til the sun had gone behind the clouds.  I had my favorite gripping gloves protecting my delicate digits from cactus prickers. I'd planned and placed the newbies in exactly the right places.  I was properly hydrated and nourished.  I'd foregone the weight room this morning in the gym in order to save my strength for digging.  And the plants are still in their pots.

I started with the easy things first.  I know, I know, just like homework, you're supposed to start with the most difficult tasks when you are freshest.  But I wanted to be sure that I had something to be proud of when I was done, so I cheated and began simply.

I had a little leaf cordia (cordia parvifolia) sitting lonely and alone and unable to be irrigated.  I'd purchased two of them 2 years ago, one for each side of the front yard.  The southernmost plant was along the main irrigation line and it was a simple matter to extend a bit of 1/2" tubing to the site I'd picked.  The one on the northern edge was too far from the main line for the water to reach.  I tried to keep up with it through hand watering, but the water needs to get down to a depth of about 2' to properly nourish the root system and my bucket brigade was never able to penetrate more than 8 or 9 inches.  Yes, we measure these things in the desert, with soil probes and pencils and aggravation.  So, my first order of business was to move the stunted one over near its cousin.  They grow about 10' wide so I stood at the center of the established plant and spread my wings. Adding a few inches to the spot in the air where my fingertips had stopped, I jumped a few feet over and put my arms out again, measuring where the transplant would live.  The rootball was small, no doubt a result of being under-watered, so the hole didn't have to be that deep.  I cleaned out the detritus from the roots and spread them carefully in a lovely circle around the stem.  I covered them with the soil I'd removed from the hole and added worm castings to nourish them.  Just like in a normal garden, 15 minutes of work and I was done.

I had a toothpick cactus (Stetsonia coryne) which was supposed to grow 5" a year. That didn't happen.  Instead, it sat in a place of honor in the middle of the front yard and turned yellow.  It took almost no effort to remove it from the ground and replant it over by the other columnar cacti.  Once again, a small root ball made digging the stetsonia's new home a simple task.  Back fill and worm castings and a prayer that I had remembered which arm was to be facing south and I was done. 

There were several yellow yuccas (hesperaloe parviflora) to be dealt with.  I thought that I would trim back the dead leaves and fertilize the remainder but there was nothing left after I pulled at the brown stalks.  It's always interesting to look at the bottom of a dead plant and see what has happened to the roots.  These were gone.  Vanished.  Disappeared.  Unavailable in any way to carry the water and minerals to the blooming parts.  Mr. Crayola has had the same issues in his garden; perhaps it's something in our neighborhood's soil?  We'd commiserated over their demise in his yard last weekend.  This weekend it seems to be my turn.

The sun was starting to cast long shadows as I picked up the shovel and began to create the first of the bigger holes.  I moved away the crushed rock we use as mulch, and then I rested.  You might not think that 3" of stones would be that difficult to move, but it is.  The little pieces don't like to stay stacked up, and when you think you've moved them far enough from the place you'll be digging you soon realize that you haven't left room for the soil you're removing.  Putting the dirt from the hole on top of the stones just means that the stones get put back into the hole along with the backfill.  Separating them requires more forethought and planning than I'd given the project.  I groaned, dropped the shovel in disgust, and treated myself to a bottle of water.

I finished the first 16.9 fluid ounces and took another bottle back with me to the dig.  The top 2" of dirt came off nicely.  After that, it was a struggle to break up the compacted soil and get enough to warrant lifting the shovel.  I moved around the hole, trying to attack it from different angles.  I took my small trowel and tried a more up-close-and-personal approach.  I paused and drank and went back to the task but after 15 minutes this is as far as I was able to get:


Sweat was pouring from every pore (don't you just love homonyms?) and the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) was still in its plastic pot.  My fantasy - finishing the project on my own in one afternoon - was obviously just that.... a fantasy.  There was no way that I was going to get through the rocks and the hardpan and dig a hole that was as deep as the rootball and twice as wide.  Not by myself.

I'm calling Ernie and his guys in the morning.  He can come and dig me 4 holes and I'll pay him whatever he asks because gardening should not leave me cursing the earth as I put my tools away.  No, it should not.

There are many reasons to love living in Tucson - the soil is NOT one of them

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