Gardening as pandemic therapy

The only way I’m being more productive than usual this spring involves dirt under my fingernails. The added housework from having everybody home all the time and the cognitive load imposed by trying to keep a nine-year-old on track with remote schoolwork may have blown up my settled work-from-home lifestyle–but at least I can still garden.

Planting, weeding, and transplanting are always a distraction at this time of year, but they’re worse when the novel-coronavirus pandemic has scoured my schedule of work events around D.C. or away from it. This ongoing public-health crisis has also left little else in my life that offers any sense of control.

So I don’t step outside too often without taking at least a few minutes to find and rip out bittercress, chickweed, and deadnettles as if they were rogue viruses. I have sunk more time than seems practical into moving lilies and ground cover from overgrown plantings into patchy areas of the lawn that I should have given up on already, then tilling other parts of the lawn before scattering grass seed there just before a night of rain.

And I picked up a few new plants last Monday to dress up the yard, the most important being a weeping cherry for the front lawn. Because I can’t leave enough well alone, I couldn’t just plant that and adjourn for a nap; I also had to yank out an overgrown laurel from one side of the front porch and and move it to a back corner of the yard. Then I moved a smaller shrub into the laurel’s old spot; it will probably grow too big in a few years. I also shifted a few yucca plants around before finishing up with a dessert course of still more weeding.

Two hours later, my clothes were caked with dirt and my joints ached. But today, the new cherry tree looks great. And neighbors who are left with few forms of outdoor recreation beyond walking around the neighborhood have something pleasant to distract them. Giving them that seems like the least I could do under the circumstances.

Peak lawn

It’s the time of the year when I have to mow the lawn once a week. That means it’s also the best time of the year to mow the lawn.

The spring wave of weeds has gone by now while spring’s rains have the grass growing at its fastest pace of the year–so fast that it starts going to seed, which at least lets me tell myself that those seeds will help fill in the bare spots.

It does get hot, but it’s not too humid and the mosquitoes have yet to arrive. So if I inevitably get distracted and start weeding or transplanting flowers, I don’t have to risk being used as a walking blood bank.

So I have no problem dragging my lawnmower and its extension cord up the basement steps once a week. (I have no idea what possesses people with small yards to buy gas-powered lawnmowers; the electric model I bought for $200 or so 14 years ago has been essentially free to use, needing no maintenance beyond blade sharpening.) Soon enough the grass will slow down, a summer drought will set in, ailanthus altissima (aka the Tree of Hell) will make its annual assault on my lawn, and in three months just reading this post will probably make me grumpy.

Lawn enemy number one: the Tree of Hell

Fourteen summers of battling the weeds in our lawn have left me with a weird, foliage-driven sense of the calendar.

If I’m twisting loose chickweed with a weeding fork, it could be February but it shouldn’t be later than April, lest I waste my efforts on plants that have already gone to seed. Pungent deadnettles come about a month later. followed by crabgrass.

And from late spring on, I can expect to see Ailanthus altissima saplings invade the front yard. “Tree of Heaven,” my ass: This invasive, quasi-viral plant grows like a weed, literally stinks, and spreads with zombie-like persistence.

Clawing out one of our worst imports from Asia requires advanced stubbornness. Plucking a shoot out of the lawn is easy but leaves a densely-coiled root that will send more growths aboveground within days.

You have to shove a trowel underneath it, elevate a clump of lawn, then feel through the dirt for that root mass and then tug it loose. Done right, you’re left with a long stretch of subterranean subversive that can no longer make a nuisance of itself.

I want to think I’ve seen results this summer, in the form of patches of lawn that haven’t sprouted new ailanthus shoots in weeks (but do show the collateral damage of bare spots that I’ll have to re-seed in the fall). It may seem like an endless task, but it can’t be as futile as trying to evict our single worst import from across the Pacific, the tiger mosquito. Right?

A neater yard and an emptier screen: How spring kills my productivity

I’ve written before that I’m a writer with a gardening problem, but my condition is never more obvious than this time of year.

lawn pornBetween late March and mid-May, three things come together for D.C.-area people who don’t mind dirt under their fingernails: many of the plants you want return to life, most of the plants you don’t want run rampant, and the mosquitoes remain offstage.

Since I work from home, I only need to look up from my desk to see the state of my yard. There, I have problems that I can attack without waiting for a reply from a source, the end of a tedious battery-life test, or a go-ahead from an editor: weeds to yank out, seeds to sow, flowers and shrubs to move around, borders between the lawn and the landscaped areas to tidy up.

Some of this work is hot and exhausting–I must have transplanted around 100 pounds’ worth of plants this spring–but much of it can be done in short stretches before I shower or right after some other chore that takes me outside, like getting the mail or taking in the trash and recycling. Plus, with many of the fast-spreading weeds that infest my yard every spring–I must have yanked out 15 pounds of chickweed and deadnettles so far–there’s the seductive promise that with a twist of a weeding fork in the right spot, I can painlessly dislodge a massive clot of uninvited foliage.

And as a 10-minute break stretches into an hour and I realize that my hands have gotten too dirty for me to want to check my phone, upstairs I have a half-written e-mail, a document that stops with my byline and a blog post that only consists of a handful of links. But when I do return to those things, the view outside will please me so much more.