Sunday, October 27, 2013


In one of the last episodes of “Sex and the City,” the writers slipped a sardonic chuckle into an otherwise serious story. Momentous life decisions are made, a snowfall creates a magical city scene, a party queen falls to her death from an upper story window. Oops. 

The title of the episode: “Splat!”
And I have a large hand.
This is one of the many thoughts that passes through my mind as I approach the corner of Iroquois and Keystone Streets on a late October day. Warty chartreuse softballs line the road on both sides, but none survive where the wheel treads trail. Instead, roughly circular blots mark the asphalt. Splat!  If you are unlucky enough to intercept the hefty fruits as they drop from the tree, the sound on the car rooftop is more of a “Bang!”

All this useless beauty.
Rounding the corner to Wenner Street, I see that osage oranges have been neatly staged in cannonball-style pyramids all round the bend. Is this an artistic statement, I wonder each time I drive by?  Three days later, my question is answered. A cardboard sign reads, “FREE! 4 Spiders.” And another comical image enters my mind. But no, the helpful homeowner is not expecting expect giant arachnids to carry the fleshy balls home to their young. The fruits have a reputation—unearned as it turns out—for repelling spiders.

One by one, balls disappear from the piles, presumably to take their places under the beds of arachnophobes. A few sideliners are squished—by errant wheels, by curious kids, by squirrels. The once battle-ready order takes on the same disheveled look as the natural fruit-fall on the other side of the road. Apparently there is not much demand for osage oranges among local raccoons and deer. This makes the giant fruits something of an anomaly: they seem to have lost their function. Too big for most animals, osage oranges, also known as hedge apples, have been known to cause death among ruminants by lodging in the esophagus. The great majority of the fleshy fruits rot beneath the canopies of the trees from which they drop, which makes no sense. Why would a tree waste energy creating a pulpy fruit when it has nothing to gain? Other fruit-bearing trees have partners—birds, bats, deer, bear, or for that matter humans—that disperse their seeds and spread the species over large areas, keeping them fit and vigorous and adaptable. Why should the osage orange be an exception to this evolutionary rule?  
Osage orange flesh is unpalatable to most animals.
Ecologist Dan Janzen calls this “the riddle of the rotting fruit.” And he has a theory. Some eleven thousand years ago the great mammoths and mastodons disappeared from the Western hemisphere; whether they were hunted to extinction or victims of an abrupt change in climate is a matter of debate. There is evidence that many of the giants were forest browsers, rather than plains grazers, and so it is entirely possible that they are the key to the riddle or, as Connie Barlow puts it in the title of her book about this and other ecological curiosities, “the ghosts of evolution.” In their absence the fallen osage oranges are sometimes picked through by squirrels and made viable, but seldom does the tree species migrate far from the spot where the fruits first bounced onto the ground.
Big thorns make good fences.

There was a time when humans took over the role of dispersal agent by planting miles and miles of living fences to keep their livestock from roaming. Pruned to fence height, the osage orange tree sends up multiple suckers and becomes "horse high, bull-strong, and hog-tight" in four years. It is estimated that at the height of its popularity, a quarter million miles of osage orange hedge grew in this country. (1)

The late 19th century introduction of barbed wire put an end to this practice but vestiges of the living fences remain in areas that were once farmed, and continue to produce suckers long after the mother plants are gone. The wood is now prized for fence posts. Archers value it also, as they have for centuries. In the early 1800s a well-made osage orange bow was said to be worth a horse and a blanket, or a “comely young squaw” in trade. Tribal wars were fought for possession of lands with generous supplies of osage orange trees.
The curious rind of the osage orange
Useless pulp lies smashed on the road. Splat! Trees that once functioned as living fences are chopped down and made into dead fences. Strong curved bows of osage orange wood may conceivably have contributed to the extinction of the animals that once kept it strong. The osage orange saga, full of twists and ironies, continues, with handmade signs pleading with anonymous passersby to take these warty green balls and give them a function—under a bed, or along a basement wall, or anywhere. Just take them.
Centuries of history go by; a tree’s stock rises and falls. Tire treads mark the intersections of Iroquois and Keystone, of ancient mastodon and modern transportation.

Bales S. 2007. Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley

Monday, October 7, 2013

Fall is for Digging

Fall is for digging. It’s for nudging your imagined gardens toward actuality.

Spring may start languorously enough, but it soon quickens its pace and leaves you with half-completed projects as you race to keep up—with planting, and weeding, and pruning, and mowing … and wishing and hoping.

But in fall, everything is dying anyway. It’s easy to put off boring end-of-season tasks, and re-imagine your space. And so you dig. You create a garden, knowing that you don’t have to fill it for at least six months. Such luxury. Such promise!

If you have read my Rules of Gardening, then you know that I believe in shortcuts. I believe in letting nature work for me. I believe in leaving space for things that I don’t know—yet—that I will want. I believe in simple tools, and in preserving my joints. 

I love my Radius Pro Transplanter.

And so, on Sunday, I picked up my Radius Pro Transplanter, and I turned over the sod—which was actually 1/3 clover, 1/3 mock Indian strawberry, and 1/3 grass. And I piled the upended tangle high with mulch, and with straw that had been resting and rotting all summer in preparation for just such a moment as this. On one end of my new garden space I planted a small dogwood tree that a friend had given me two years ago, when it was a mere Audubon whip, and I braced it with a bamboo tripod, which had served as summer support for a crop of rattlesnake pole beans. Later, or sooner, I will wrap it with deer netting.

After using my aged straw, I went out and purchased 3 more bales ... for next year.

My new dogwood will make flowers in the spring and shade in the afternoon. Yes, it will take time, but better to plant young things that you can shape and watch over, than “install” large expensive trees with their roots in a knot. I think of a friend—she may be 85, or she may be 90, or 91 even—who, when asked what type of tree she would like to receive as a tribute to her years of patronage, pronounced (with the aplomb only a self-confident woman in her ninth decade can muster), “I would like a white oak, a small one. I like to watch trees grow.” So we planted the small white oak, on her instructions, in the middle of an open field, where, in her aging mind, it took on the majestic proportions of lone oaks you sometimes see standing out in the middle of fields of grass. “Lone oak” is a dignified name bestowed on farms and campsites, cities and wineries, and even senior housing facilities. The stalwart, elegant image is universal, and it pleases us all.

Landscape gerber daisies

I see my dogwood spreading its roots and its graceful form toward my patio. As for the straw-mulched arm that stretches from the patio to my young champion, I have no immediate plans. Probably I will find some alluring annual flower that I will need to try. I generally do. Last year it was my beautiful landscape gerber daisy; this year, my most gratifyingly dwarf leonotis. And even while the mystery belle of 2014 is proving her merit, I will be tossing more permanent prospects around, trying them out for size in my imagination. 

Dwarf leonotis, a spectacular garden success story.

I have all winter to luxuriate in the possibilities. Nothing, not even an apple pie in October, is more delicious than a rich bed of empty soil in April.