Last week, Karen’s voice drifted into the house, “Mark, can you help me with something for five minutes?”
It was small task. She was trimming out some dead branches in the Azalea bushes in a six by three bed near the heat pumps on the side of the house where my neighbor Steve had recently installed a French drain. Some of the branches were too thick for her to cut with the long handled clipper thing. I enjoyed exhibiting my muscles and cutting the bigger branches.
We also cut out the vine-like weeds. She had to point them out because I still can’t figure out what defines a weed from a plant. What makes one variety of green leafy life good and another bad? Seems like a form of discrimination, but I hack away when told.
It wasn’t a five minute job but still only 30 minutes or so and we were done. Except…
Now two of the Azaleas looked really scrawny and sick, so Karen asked, “Would you like to dig that one out completely?”
Getting a bit smart-assed about it, I answered, “If you want me to dig it out, I certainly will but don’t ask me if I would LIKE to do it.”
So the five minute clip was starting to grow and I was getting twinges of premonition. I fetched the shovel and the red-chopper-thingy. I know it has a name…adz?...but it has a tiny axe-like shape on one side of the business end and a kind of hoe-on-steroids shape on the other. And it’s not really red anymore either since it has chopped a lot of roots in the past. I chop at some more, work up a sweat and eventually pull out first one…then, of course, two…of the dying azaleas.
I mop my brow (not with an actual mop, of course) and my heart sinks when I glance at Karen and see that look that says, “I wonder if I dare to ask him something more?”
“Would you mind,” she says – avoiding using the word “like” – if we took out the other two azaleas and planted all new bushes in here. I grunt my assent. The sun is getting higher and I fetch a headband because sweat is now pouring into my eyes. Digging up healthy azaleas is considerably harder than dead ones. Chop, dig, chop, dig, pull, chop, dig, pry, pull, chop, pull…The big azalea, with complete root system, is too heavy to put in the wheelbarrow so I drag it to the road while Karen cheers me on with words such as, “Be careful not to hurt the grass!”
I’m still hoping that this five minute…now three hour task…has an end point to it. Of course, I need to turn the soil now so she can plant something new. The good news is that the soil is only three inches deep. The bad news is that underneath it is all clay and – “Don’t you think we need to get rid of all that clay?”
I resist answering, “I didn’t think we needed to trim dead branches in the beginning.” Instead I fetch the wheelbarrow and start shoveling heavy, damp clay, and wheeling it down to the artificial pond (which looks like a real pond)…except it is deep and drops off fast. I dump clay from the bank in big wheelbarrow fulls. I lose count after 294. Somewhere around the 600th load, I lose my grip and the wheelbarrow rolls down the bank and into the pond. I hold one handle for dear life and follow it in, sliding up to my clavicles in mud, clay, and tepid pond scum.
There are alligators…I’ve posted pictures…but I never worry about them like my neighbors do. Except when walking Sally. They have big mouths but small brains (sort of like myself when I blurt out things at work). Alligators see moving objects and make only one decision…small enough to eat, or big enough to run from. They leave me alone while I struggle to retrieve the wheelbarrow and, in the process, decide the hole is big enough and I’m done for the day.
The worst is over. All that remains is to put in new dirt so Karen can plant. Thankfully, thunderstorms arrive and I have an excuse to go back inside although by now I’ve forgotten what I was doing before I went out for five minutes to clip a couple of branches. But I’m almost done and can finish up early on Sunday.
Sunday morning, we go outside and find that all of the rain from the thunderstorm is now sitting in the hole. I have successfully created a new artificial pond. Even my neighbor, Steve, is standing there admiring it. He cheers me on with words such as, “Looks like you have a real problem there.”
We stand around, scratching our heads, and staring at 600 wheelbarrows full of brown water where clay used to be. We finally figure that before we decided to clip a couple of branches, the azalea roots had been drinking much of the water and the clay base had been high enough so gravity made the rest run off into the yard.
The solution now seems to be to fill at least half the hole back up with clay…I may even need to buy some since I’ve successfully thrown on the free stuff in the pond. Then I will have to dig a trench ten feet out and connect it to Steve’s recently installed French drain.
“While you’re doing that,” Karen suggests, “would you like to connect the downspouts from our gutters?”
“I’d love to,” I answer. “But first there are two or three dead branches I should cut from the azalea over near the storage shed.”