We were lucky. The weather was great and everything and one showed up when they were supposed to. I often fret too much about working with large corporate volunteer groups at Ann’s Place as I want to ensure that everything occurs without a hitch. So when I did not get an e-mail or phone call back from the Carnivorous Plant Nursery about my Sunday morning pick up, I worried. When it was 8:30 in the morning (30 minutes before the volunteers were to arrive) and the gravel had yet to arrive, I worried. But as has always been the case, this negative energy is for naught and everything and body was ready.
We lucked out and got a perfect day to work outdoors: sunny, temperatures in the 70s and low humidity. After I arrive, I take a quick walk around the property to review what needs to be done. In one sense it was unneeded as the major efforts will focus on two projects: moving three yards of gravel and building a carnivorous plant bog. Both require a lot of heavy lifting. But you never know what you will find, and it also gives me an opportunity to appreciate how the garden has changed. The sky is a light blue with clouds reminding me of a Turner landscape and a frog jumps in front of me toward the wetlands as I make my way though the back yard.
Every year I attack another weed and every year a new one emerges to take its place. This year it is mugwort, which is threatening to dominate certain parts of the garden. It appears that I am getting the better hand over the infestation of phragmite that was beginning to dominate some areas. A 30% solution of horticultural vinegar injected into the roots appears to have done the trick and I am finding success in beating it back. Mugwort will take a similar effort and I am afraid that at least one group today will despise this European herb by the end of the day.
But before the tough work starts, the group is milling around looking at piles of stones as well as peat moss, sand and perlite wondering what they will be doing with it. “When you said planting a carnivorous plant garden, there was no mention of this other stuff,” said one of the volunteers. I smiled and started to explain.
“Carnivorous plants are unique in that they evolved in nutrient-free soil so they needed alternative ways to get food. Their leaves became modified so that they would be the mechanism by which nutrients—bugs in their case—would be absorbed. But because of this adaptation, they cannot be in what would be considered good soil so we need to create a bog that recreates their native conditions.”
And with that I started to tell them what they needed to do. “Start by digging a hole that is 10 by 3 by 2 feet deep.” It turns out that is a lot of soil. This method was all to common to me when I did it in my own back yard with Charlotte years ago. They looked at me and started to dig. There were four of them, two on wheelbarrows, two on shovels trading off. The sun was beginning to warm the day.
Another group was on gravel. While the gravel is heavier than soil, their job was easier as they had to move it only 10 to 30 feet. Before they had to place the gravel, they put down landscaping fabric to minimize the amount of weeds that would emerge in the future. They too were getting hot.
And the weeders were working with my intern Donna, looking for bittersweet, mugwort and Japanese knotweed. They weren’t in the sun but were squatting mostly in the shade pulling offending plants from all the gardens. In weeding, tools can make a big difference. For example, a scuffle (or stirrup) hoe is one of the best tools to remove weeds though few of my clients have ever heard of it. It is the best and easiest tool to use for removing weeds from the stone dust paths that circle our gardens. I show one client how to use it by putting one hand on top of the middle of the handle and the other turned, hand facing up on the butt end. Bending at the knees and applying pressure with my arms, the hoe glides back and forth just under the surface of the stone dust cutting off the roots of the weeds, which can be collected later. “My God, where did you get this tool!” said one of the clients. I smiled and told them that it has been around for quite a while and is one of the most most underappreciated tools in gardening. “Where can I buy one?”
Working with a group like this is often a challenge as I try to match the skills of the person to the job at hand without any knowledge. I have all of 10 seconds to size up each person and assign them a job. In this case, that has been made a bit easier by the fact that the team leaders, Michael and Sarah, have pre-assigned members of the team to the different tasks that I forwarded them a few days back.
Though I had only 14 volunteers, the jobs were getting done quickly and the people were enjoying themselves. Some were not gardeners but clearly were happy being outside during the day. One of the return volunteers from last year, ironically, told me that the first thing he did last year was to go to the hardware store to purchase a stirrup hoe, which has become one of his favorite garden tools.
Late in the morning, the hole for the carnivorous plants was finished and now we had to make the bog mix of peat moss, sand and perlite. It was messy and we tried our best not to breathe in the plumes of dust arising from the hole as it was deposited. Nearly two yards of material later (with lots of water) the bog was ready for planting and the gravel crew was done with its assignment. The sun was high and everyone had worked up a good sweat and appetite. Time for lunch.
After lunch, the gravel crew started to weed and the mugwort didn’t stand a chance as bucketsful were being tossed over the fence into the wetlands areas. Now was time to plant. When everyone looked at the carnivorous plants in three small boxes, they didn’t think that they would amount to much. But what they didn’t realize is that because I picked up the plants at the nursery, I was able to get lots of extras. So rather than just plunk each pot into the ground, I carefully tore each one into component parts, each of which was a plant or two.
I started with the largest plants, distributing them over the newly created bog and moved downward in size. I didn’t really have a plan but just went with instinct as I put plants to bed. It took longer than I thought it would but soon the space was filled and I was becoming hard pressed to find spots for the remaining specimens. But soon it was done and everyone was very pleased with the result. Coincident with this was the end of weeding as the group had circled the property and removed most of the offending weeds. Everyone looked over the newly planted bog and was please snapping pictures and making “Little Shop of Horrors,” jokes. We put away our tools, took a last swig of water and made our ways home happy with the result of the day.