Summer on a Dime

The day I hired—and unhired—an expert for my garden.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY MATT COLLINS

Our California backyard is nearly an acre, but all the sunshine we get can be focused on a dime, between 3:00 and 3:02 on the afternoon of the summer solstice. That is, last summer’s solstice. This year even that will be gone. The neighbors tell me that the first owners of this old house loved to plant things. The second owners and third owners planted some more things. When we came along, I took in our magnificent new yard (“Woodsy, pan Bay vw, MUST see”) and put in a dozen camellias, all kinds, squeezed between and under the pines, spruces, and cedars.

That was 22 years ago, and now I can’t see by daylight to peel potatoes. We enjoy our “pan Bay vw” only in memory, or when my husband and I drop by our neighbors. They were disciplined about their backyard.

“This spruce has gone crazy,” he said. “You can do without it.”

We decided to do something drastic. An expert would know what to cut down and what to keep.
At $65 an hour, the arborist we called was far from helpful. He walked around on our deck, craning his neck until I thought it would snap, then proceeded to try to destroy my estate. He went straight to the big conifer that shaded picnics on our deck.

“This spruce has gone crazy. You can do without it,” he said.

“It’s full of birds,” I protested. “Look, you can see a couple of nests at the top.” It was, besides, the healthiest spruce in the yard. Its foliage was blue like some I’d once seen in upstate New York on a drive to Boston. Blue spruces are romantic.

As I feared, the next tree he marked for the ax was a cedar, spindly and without hope. “That’s why we called you in,” I said. “When you thin the crowd around it, the cedar will pick up.”

“It isn’t even an aromatic cedar. You’d want to nourish an aromatic. This should be kindling.”

Kill my cedar just because it wasn’t the aromatic variety? I sought to distract the arborist.

“The brush could go,” I said. “That’s surely choking off sun and air at the roots. But not this bush here—some of the loveliest pink blossoms pop out in the spring. The bees go crazy! That’s a snowball bush over there, though it badly needs pruning. Couldn’t you just thin out between them?”

“I’d be too expensive for that kind of work. There are lots of kids looking for summer jobs who could clear brush.”

We pushed on, weaving through branches and creepers. We ducked under the roses, whose canes soared toward the sky and rested their chins in the crooks of Monterey pines, looking for sun. Well, aren’t we all?

He asked, tentatively, “What about this holly?”

No! I weave Christmas garlands from this tree. The arborist glanced at me and sighed. “I suppose you’d want to keep the cotoneaster. But it’s a bit…unruly.”

Why was he leaving it up to me? The cotoneaster was a wonderful food source for wildlife. I had resuscitated generations of drunken robins. Red Lightning, my husband called the berries. “Just prune a branch or two so the sun can get through,” I said. “That crabapple can go. Be sure to treat the stump so it doesn’t grow back.” I could be ruthless, in case he ever doubted it.

“No, really?” He sounded faintly sarcastic.

“Of course. It’s all over my roses. That’s why they look like giraffes.”

“What about this plum tree? The little fellow over there is an oak, he’ll be around long after the others are gone…”

An oak! I had a real oak!

“Get rid of the ivy,” I said firmly. “Look at how all the trees are covered with it. The blackberries have to come out, too.”

“I told you,” he said patiently. “You’d be throwing your money away at my rates. Anybody can clear ground stuff. So what about this plum that’s too big? And I counted at least a dozen camellias. Who in his right mind would plant that many camellias? A few less would open up the yard a bit and give the maple some room. You may even get some of your view back.”

“We’ve lived here 22 years,” I replied. This seemed to puzzle him. I meant there had been lots of space when I planted my dozen camellias. “When can you start?”

He looked up at the sky, as if the words he needed might be written there. Finally he said, “My son has a school break coming up. I’ll tell him to call you.”

He left.

He was gone before I could tell him one more thing. I didn’t want his son to go trampling my lily of the valley. They thrive in the shade.


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