Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dead Wood

These are the calm months, in the garden. Autumn's endless leaves have been wrangled, every last one caught and bagged, accounted for. The debris and casualties of the winter's worst storms (knock on wood) have finally stopped piling up. Conifers have shed the bulk of their old, "used" photosynthetic material for the year (don't let anyone tell you that evergreens don't drop leaves every year... I've spent countless hours trying to rake up the needles and scales of pines, hemlocks, firs, Chamaecyparis and Thuja... they wait until the gardener is finally done picking up the big papery leaves of deciduous trees and then, right when he hauls the last lawn bag to the curb and goes inside for a well-deserved beer, they start to sprinkle their small brown needles like a quiet rain that covers all and will not be easily raked, pushed, cajoled or convinced into any sort of pile, forcing our gardener to abandon all thoughts of refreshment and instead to spend the next five weeks or so picking up pine needles with a pair of tweezers).
So what occupies the hardworking gardener during the mid-winter doldrums? For the most part, a bit of pruning and a lot of deadwooding. Now, any resource will tell you that the three D's of pruning (Dead, Diseased and Damaged wood) can and should be removed any time of the year. If you have one garden and much spare time, this is good advice. If, however, you spent most of the year divided between 30 different gardens, frantically speeding from one to the next doing your blessed best to delay their seemingly inevitable descent into chaotic wilderness, you rarely have the opportunity to spend a few hours with your head stuck in a shrub snipping and snapping little pieces of dead wood.
It is only when the rest of the world has turned calm and cool that one finds time to take a breath, clear the mind and look closely inside for the sick and damaged bits that stick out at all angles, subliminally crowding and frustrating what could be a simpler, more beautiful form. These neglected, aborted stubs can become infected, trap other detritus, and render stagnant what should be an open, freely circulating structure. They do not contribute anything; they are not helping anything. When after a long year they are at last patiently sought and removed, one marvels at the transformation, wondering why these things are allowed to accumulate, why we can't see and be rid of them sooner, before the wan clutter tangles with healthy branches and we are confused. As with other things necessary and overlooked we wonder: why can't we make this more important? But such questions are answered quietly, and such answers are often buried under the next season's color and business, forgotten and withered, to be removed as dead wood the next time we find time for such things.

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