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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

After much thought, I have decided that working on small projects may give you instant gratification, but working on big projects gives you life itself. I can say this with absolute certainty because at the moment I am working on four large garden projects. I am probably certifiable, and I am definitely stiff in the lumbar region, but I feel full of life.

The most physically challenging project is the removal of the three large yews in front of my house. Once upon a time they were worthy and beautiful shrubs, but now the top branches have grown impossibly high and the bottom ones are dead. Rehabilitation is impossible, so removal is the only option. I had originally planned to hire burly young men with ferocious machines to dig the yews out. Unfortunately, there really isn’t enough room in that part of the yard for the necessary equipment, and there is less room in the budget than I had originally anticipated. Therefore I have taken up my loppers, pruning saws, shovel and personal determination and begun to do battle with the green behemouths. Removing the branches does not scare me. I am two thirds of the way finished with the first yew. The prospect of digging up the roots scares me. I imagine each one to be about 10 inches in diameter, and the taproot undoubtedly descends at least 30 feet. Still, others have done bigger things with fewer resources. I am not strong, but I am extremely persistent. I cling to the belief that a reasonable amount of excavation every day will lead to removal of the yews in a reasonable period of time. In the meantime I find all the lopping and sawing curiously exhilarating.

My second challenge, the hedge on the north boundary of my property, is like the first minus the digging. It is also a project that would benefit from professional intervention. The hedge, as I have mentioned in this space before, is completely overgrown and every possible variety of obnoxious self-sown horticultural thug has worked its way into the original boxwood. In my pruning sessions I have encountered bittersweet, honeysuckle, poison ivy, wisteria, mulberry, English ivy, barberry and at least four kinds of pencil thin saplings. The hedge is ten feet tall, and I aim to get it down to five feet tall. I am determined to restore it to a reasonable size and state of health. In the process I wear gloves and a heavy layer of antihistamine ointment. The hedge does not scare me, though at times it threatens to engulf me.

The third challenge is to build new planting beds around half my front yard and three quarters of my back yard. Like my father before me, I have bad karma with small engines. I have killed off several weed wackers, and I can only imagine the damage I would do to a small tiller. For that reason, and assorted ecological reasons, I am using the well-known newspaper and mulch method to create my new beds. We subscribe to many newspapers, and every sheet that goes into a garden bed does not have to be hauled out on recycling day. I also have plenty of mulching material, especially now that I am involved with hedge trimming on a day to day basis.

To build new beds, every day or so I go to the end of one of the existing beds and put down a double page newspaper section. I cover it with eleven more double pages, then water the newspaper thoroughly. I finish off by covering the whole thing with a generous amount of mulch. By next spring the soil underneath will be rich and crumbly and the newspaper will be at least partially decomposed. For now, if I want to plant one of those garden center bargains, I can simply dig a hole through the newspaper and mulch,l and plant, restoring the ground covering materials around my new acquisition when I finish. The whole process of building new beds in this way requires less courage than removing the yews and less tenacity than taming the hedge. Like tooth flossing, it is more of a daily ritual that will pay off in the long run.

While I am building beds, I also try to take care of the fourth challenge, which is making sure that my existing beds are thoroughly mulched. I use a mixture of dry leaves and grass clippings in the back where nobody sees the beds but my family and friends (it all turns brown anyway, and looks just fine after a few days). I try to use a more attractive mulch in the front where I have to impress the local dog walkers.

The plants that I value the most—roses and certain costly specimens—get mulched with my precious homemade compost. I cook this up in my compost tumbler from the organic garbage, and it is wonderful. If I had room for six compost tumblers, I might have as much as I need.

Tackling my challenges reminds me that the love of gardening is really the love of a process. Some components of the process are small, like planting petunias. Others are large, like removing yews. Whatever the end result, the process is the part that gives life.

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