Cutting Back


April 17, 2000

When I was a kid my dad had this house in upstate New York. It was his weekend house. It was in a tiny little town called Ancramdale. It was near nothing, except for the town of Ancram. It was farm country

This house was white clapboard. There were two bedrooms, a eat-in kitchen, a bathroom, and an enclosed sun room that doubled as a dining room downstairs. Upstairs was a big loft and another bedroom. My sisters and I slept upstairs. The property also had a barn, a garage, and a guest cottage that we used as a screening room.

Outside the kitchen window was a huge lilac hedge. It was at least ten feet long and five feet wide. It was actually two shrubs, one white and one lavender, completely entwined in one another. Come spring the entire house and all the outside smelled absolutely divine. We would carry huge armfuls of lilacs back to my mother's house after spring weekends with my dad.

My dad bought the house from a widower, Mr. Farley. Mr. Farley's wife had been killed in a horrible car wreck and the house held too many memories for him.

Mrs. Farley was a nurse. Mr. Farley never told us that. My sisters and I discovered it when digging through some stuff we found in one of the closets in the sleeping loft. A whole bunch of old nursing magazines, some old nurse shoes, and other sorts of nurse paraphernalia. Finding this stuff of Mrs. Farley's really spooked us. For no other reason other than this was the first time my sisters and I ever knew someone who was dead.

OK, we never really knew Mrs. Farley, but we spent weekends and summers in her former home. We knew her story, so by extension we felt like we knew her.

To this day, any time anything scares me in a ghoulish, ghosty kind of way I say I have the Farley's. That's what my sisters and I still call it.

The house was great. There was a huge sprawling lawn behind the house. Behind that was forest. There was another, even bigger lawn behind the barn. Along the perimeter of the back lawn were dozens of apple trees. That portion of the property was probably about five acres. And across the street was yet another acre of land.

It was this acre of land that was the bane of my early teen years. My stepmother, OK, she was my dad's girlfriend at the time, decided it would be a superb place for a vegetable garden.

I'm here to tell you, one acre is one hell of a vegetable garden.

When we started out it was nothing more than a big field with hay and weeds. We rototilled, dug, amended, smoothed, planted, watered, and weeded. The end result was an incredible bounty of summer and fall vegetables, the likes of which this Brooklyn girl had never before tasted.

Do you know what a tomato, beautifully red and ripe, still warm from the sun, tastes like when it was picked less than one minute before taking a bite of it? I do now, I didn't before then.

But I hated working in the garden. It was hot, dirty, buggy, and yucky. I especially hated the weeding.

All this to say that I don't know why I love gardening now. But love it I do. The digging, and even the weeding. I love the dirt. I love the way it smells. The way it feels in my hands. I rarely wear gloves to garden. I hear some pregnant women have the urge to eat dirt. This never happened to me.

I've studied a lot about gardening, trees, planting, and such. I have taken many classes in horticulture and have a good portion of the classes necessary toward becoming a landscape designer. For about two years, not an outing went by without a guided tour, complete with Latin names, of every tree, shrub, and flower Chuck and I drove or walked past.

But I have trouble cutting things back. I know that you're supposed to. I know it makes for a happier, healthier plant, but it scares me. I've been known to be a little overzealous at times and have cut things so far back that they've never recovered. Oh, that lovely stick in the ground over there, that used to be my (fill in the blank here, there are too many of these embarrassing situations to even be specific).

I'm getting better. I've become more judicious with my pruning. My timing has gotten better. So has my technique. And then there's Suki. You see my dog doesn't really realize how big she is and often ends up knocking branches off things. In spite of me and her, my garden has flourished.

Case in point: my Tibouchina urvinlleana (Princess Flower). I've had this shrub, in a pot for about three years now. It produces splendid, almost velvety, deep purple flowers. Until this year I never pruned it. It has been doing well, though. When I got it, it was about three feet tall. At the end of last summer it topped out at about seven feet at its highest point.

Suki knocked several branches from it last summer. It recovered nicely. Then we had some terrible winds, and Suki must have lost a toy in the pot, because between those two events the shrub was looking pretty ratty. Several branches were hanging on for dear life. Lots of leaves were gone--lost to the winds or Suki. Then closer inspection revealed that it was kind of leggy-looking. It could do with a bit of pruning.

Well prune I did. Suddenly all that was left was a funny looking stick in a pot. Ut Oh. I'd done it again. But I held the faith. I fertilized. I watered. And I watched. Then about three weeks later I started to see little buds. Now, about a two months later, lo:

it's alive!

OK, so the picture is a little dark, that's me, but notice the leaves. They don't look so great right now since the poor thing was pelted with torrential rains today. But look, it's growing. It should survive.

Then there's the story of the peach tree. Chuck and I were at Costco a few months back. In addition to 45 gallon tubs of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia, there were fruit trees. Now, nothing surprises me as far as what it's possible to find at Costco. What surprised me was the price. It was $19.99. I thought that was a pretty good deal for a tree so I took one.

I got it home and had the perfect spot all picked out. I started digging. I dug, and dug, and dug. I amended. I took the tree out of the pail where it had been soaking overnight in preparation for planting. I put it in the ground. I then read the little information tag that comes attached to one of the branches with a wire twist-tie. It said something ominous like cut it back to the bare stick. Hmmmm. I didn't think that was right. I then consulted the Bible of every gardener in the state of California: Sunset Western Garden Book.

Surprisingly, Sunset had little to say about the mechanics of planting the damned tree. I could tell you plenty of other things, like it's pretty damned unlikely that I'll see fruit on this damned thing for at least two more years, more likely five. So I consulted a variety of other plant-related books I had. Consensus was prune it back. To the stick. So I had at it. I'm good at this method of pruning. Well, a few weeks later I started to see some buds, now, lo:


It's covered with leaves. Despite the rain it's holding its own. I'm a happy camper.

But the thing in my garden that makes the the absolute happiest is a gift left for us by the previous owners of this house. Remember how I said that the kitchen outside our house had huge lilac shrubs? Well, lilacs don't do well in So Cal. They really need a frost. There are a few species that limp along here, but generally speaking, you won't see anything like what I grew up with.

But I have this lilac shrub left to me by the former owners. It bears white flowers. It's coming along nicely. Last spring I had one measly flower. It was about three inches long. I loved that pathetic little flower and would go out every morning and sniff it's sweet aroma. Then Suki knocked the pot over.

I'd given it up for dead but transplanted it anyway. I trimmed it back. I fed it. I watered it. Then I hoped. It worked. This spring I've been graced by about 10 spectacular and spectacular smelling flowers.

make me happy!

Maybe I'm getting the hang of this cutting back thing.

Until next time...