Saturday, July 2, 2011

Botany and desire in my own backyard

Humans vs. plants: Who's calling the shots?
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 4, 2011

   Our completed arbor is simple and relatively inexpensive, constructed of
brown-stained pressure-treated lumber, deck screws and 8 lag screws.
Are humans in charge of plants? I was recently reminded of the power of plants in my life by “The Botany of Desire,” the PBS documentary inspired by Michael Pollan’s book of the same name. In both the book and the film, Pollan makes the case that, although we’ve always thought that we are in charge of plants, in fact, they have been shaping us. In the film he says “We don’t give plants nearly enough credit. They’ve been working on us. They’ve been using us.” He points to four common plants—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes—and shows how these plants, by satisfying our desire for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control, respectively, have gotten us to go to great lengths to ensure their survival and abundance.

Desire, of course, is a powerful force—sometimes leading us to seek gratification at all costs. In our quest for sweetness, for example, Pollan says that we have grafted only the sweetest apple varieties over and over until they have lost their genetic diversity and ability to naturally resist pests and diseases, thereby increasing the need for pesticides and even genetic engineering.

And so I now realize that this complex relationship between plants and humans has played itself out in my own backyard. The needs of plants have been shaping the content of my weekends for months, maybe years. The following series of events shows how my own desires for sweetness, beauty, and control (we’ll leave intoxication out for now) have caused me and my husband to go to back-breaking lengths for plants—sometimes with unexpected results.


Hammering the boards in place goes quickly after figuring out how to dig
post holes in root-infiltrated soil with a "tamper head digging bar," which
we dubbed "the root-buster."

September 2010: The seven native cottonwoods growing around the perimeter of our front yard are ruining everything. My garden is losing light as the huge, leafy trees grow dramatically each year. In the spring, they drop their sticky seeds all over our deck, lawn furniture, and cars, leaving a glued-on black residue. And their invasive roots are sending up shoots, crowding out plants, and pushing up stepping stones all over the yard.

Saturday, September 11: We hire my cousin’s daughter’s boyfriend—an on-call CDF fire-fighter—to come cut the trees down. After traveling from Sacramento, he realizes he doesn’t have the expertise or the equipment to drop the largest trees without hitting structures and wires, so $500 later, we are only rid of two small trees.

Wednesday, September 29: We hire a local arborist, whose crew reduces the five remaining cottonwoods to stumps.

Sunday, April 3: With the cottonwoods gone, we lose some privacy in our front yard. My husband and I decide to build a 13-foot stretch of fence along the road. It’s our first fence and we are immediately hindered by enormous, unyielding roots (from the cottonwoods, of course) which make digging three post holes impossible.

Saturday, April 9: At Lowe’s I am directed to a root-severing device: a simple cast-iron pole, blade-like at one end, and so heavy I can barely lift it into the cart.

Later that day: By hurling our new “root-buster” downwards, over and over, the offending roots are severed one by one by my husband, the holes are finally dug, and the posts are Quikreted in place.

Saturday, April 17: We finish the fence and pose for a proud “We did it!” photo moment—which is somewhat bittersweet, because unstoppable cottonwood shoots are still erupting from shallow roots all over the garden.


Backed by our new concrete block retaining wall,
 the new tomato plants have plenty of virgin soil
  and room to grow.
Week of May 6-13: In an attempt to grow tomatoes more successfully in my backyard (see Love Apply Farms’ recommendations at, among other things, I need to:
1)      Create a new planting area in soil that is not exhausted.
2)      Dig several 2-foot holes in root-infested soil.

I choose a space at the base of a hill, not too distant from a large oak tree. I trim back ice plant, lug it away, and extend an existing retaining wall using concrete wall blocks—97 of them to be exact. It takes four trips to Home Depot to transport the heavy loads in my small trunk. I beg/bribe/bully available family members each trip to help carry the blocks from the car to the backyard.

Sunday, May 15: The wall is finally done, and my husband hurls the root-buster once again to dig the holes for the tomatoes—which are finally planted in nutrient fortified, gopher-wired holes. If the gophers don’t infiltrate the wire, we’ll know by August whether or not all that effort was worth the sweet taste of a ripe heirloom tomato.


Friday, May 20: Not far from the tomatoes, an innocently planted piece of wisteria root has grown into a thriving vine that, in the spring, sprouts a lovely profusion of hanging white flower clusters. However, now that it’s May, the wisteria has morphed into a green leafy alien-monster, sending  its wavy tendrils out into space, looking for something—anything—to grab a hold of.

Weary of hole-digging, I wonder if an arbor can be built without sinking the posts. Online I learn that it is possible to attach posts to concrete piers, but it doesn’t sound very attractive or very stable.

Our completed arbor, from plans in
"Making Arbors & Trellises" by
Marcianne Miller & Olivier Rollin
Saturday, May 28: I purchase lumber and hardware at Monument Lumber in Freedom. My husband digs the holes (more root-busting, of course) and I begin cutting the lumber.

Sunday, May 29: We attach the posts to the cross beams, then lift the two heavy structures up into the holes. We adjust the relative height of the four posts with rocks until they all match, then attach the side beams and roof pieces. Finally, towards the end of the day, we secure the posts and I stand back to admire our handiwork. Aching all over and dead tired, I’m trying to envision one of my daughters underneath a lovely flower-draped arbor on her wedding day, when my husband asks, “What if the wisteria doesn’t use the arbor?”


So what exactly have we learned about our relationship with plants? Perhaps it is recognizing that we do have a relationship with plants, and, in fact, we are rather dependent upon each other. Or as Michael Pollan puts it, “to the extent that you can put yourself in the place of these other species and look at the world from their point of view…we become members of the biotic community, one among many species, all of them together creating this wonderful web that we call life.”

No comments: