Attack of the Freakish Foliage

As of next week or so, we’ll be celebrating the seventeenth anniversary of moving into our house, our neighbourhood, and this place we call home. Seventeen years is all at once a short blip and a really long time. It sometimes seems like we’ve both lived here forever and also just moved in.

In reality though, a lot has changed. Where I look out my back window and see houses, trees, grass, gardens, birds, and blue sky, on the day we moved in was a construction zone with heaps of clay clumped into piles amongst weeds, lonely streets paved through a blank field, and utility stakes poking from the ground.

We “built” our house, in that we went to a local building company, and from them bought a piece of land, a house plan and contracting services to turn lot and plans and heaps of supplies into a finished home. It took the better part of a year and was simultaneously exciting and frustrating.

Development companies exist largely to do exactly this type of work: turn a chunk of suburban landscape that used to be farms and fields into rows of neat little houses at the edge of the city, and they both do it very well and simultaneously take shortcuts that have long term impacts.

Last year I noticed one of those shortcuts while out on my walk with the dog: a tree planted by the developer had done something that no one had ever intended. It had started turning from a lovely ornamental cherry tree into a scraggly crab apple tree.

Pictured above is actually a single tree.

On the top is green foliage that is starting to spring blossom for a crop of fall apples.

On the bottom (or should I say middle?) is red-hued cherry, an ornamental tree with gorgeous colours year round, and a favourite of developers trying to add colour and splendour to a new neighbourhood.

On the very bottom is the culprit and cause of the mix-up: the fake cherry was actually a graft of cherry branches onto a much hardier crab apple trunk. This was all well and good and no one would ever have known any different. But then droughts and stress and age and seventeen (likely more) years have passed and the cherry bits have been overtaken by new growth from the trunk and now a freakish hybrid of a tree sits at the edge of a small park making passers-by wonder at what the heck is going on.

Iโ€™m in no way against tree grafting. I used to have a tree just like this on my front lawn, a cherry trunk grafted with a mismatched collection of less hardy cherry branches. It died after about four years because here on the Canadian prairies life is tough, especially for a mutant tree.

My point, if I actually have one, is that of the downside of taking shortcuts if youโ€™re not going to be around for the long haul.

Shortcuts in life, gardening and most anything else can be time savers and budget buffers. Getting something the quick and easy way can be a nice perk of knowing what matters and what doesnโ€™t.

When building a community, my developer took a shortcut and saved some time, money, and planted a tree that looked great … for a few years. Then they left, went off to build other, newer neighbourhoods, and the community was left with a plant that needed more care and attention than anyone could be bothered to give it. Left to its own, the faux cherry tree has done what nature let it do, in a long, methodical, slow process… revert back to the plant it was always intended to be: a crab apple tree.

Shortcut: zero. Nature for the win.

Had the developer spent a little more care and attention to put in plants that were local (and we have many beautiful trees that grow natively not a few hundred meters away in the river valley) right now there would be a park with something less frankenstein growing at the gate and more fitting for a pretty suburban neighbourhood. But the cherry looked great at the time, sold the idea of suburban paradise to people looking to build lots of new homes, and years and decades later has outlived its purpose.

It was a shortcut, and years later for the long haulers like me, a shortcut to the simple but important reminder that the people who built our community then are not the ones who live in it now and continue to build it today.

Backyard: Travel by Flower

In recognition of yet-another-local-lockdown due to the ongoing pandemic, I'm doing a week of feature blog posts about living in the backyard. From May 10th through 16th, my posts will be themed around life outdoors but as close to home as possible, a few steps out the back door.

It’s Travel Tuesday, and even tho I cannot go anywhere I have been plunging plugs of soil from the yard as I deal with some visitors from Europe who have overstayed their welcome.

Dandelions: the two most commonplace species worldwide, T. officinale (the common dandelion) and T. erythrospermum (the red-seeded dandelion), were introduced into North America from Europe and now propagate as wildflowers.Wikipedia

This photo is one that I took last year in the park near my house. A couple thousand square meters of little yellow flowers that blossom for a few days before turning into countless white puffballs.

Millions of yellow flowers cover the parks of my city starting in mid-May each year, and it is only with an epic diligence plucking, pulling, or even poisoning the colourful weeds that my yard does not look like a dandelion explosion.

Why?

There is an eternal tug-o-war between the naturalization of green spaces including the small parcel of land over which I steward, also known as my yard, and the tending of those spaces into manicured single-species carpets called lawns. We work, spend, and bicker over the fate of these little flowers that appear for at most a couple weeks each year.

Locals despise them, pick them, and chide each other for letting them grow too amply.

For many reasons we favour grasses, green and soft, mowed to an even trim.

And even if I did not, if I instead chose to let my property return to the natural state of mixed natural flora, local bylaws would trample on my eco-crusade and issue me a ticket in the name of neighbourly harmony.

So I pluck dandelions from among the blades of grass, knowing that one visiting species, grass, is in a constant battle against a different sort of traveler, the aggressive yellow dandelion.

It is a fight against a flower in an epic struggle for a so-called perfect lawn.

Sometimes I really am just tempted to dig it all up and grow potatoes.

Caged Flame

It was Saturday afternoon and for the first time in a week there was nary a spot of snow in my backyard.

We had some pork loin marinating in the refrigerator and my wife was all “I was just going to cook it in the oven but if it’s nice enough out there you could barbecue.”

“Or I could try it over a fire.” I offered.

“You could.” She was skeptical. “But you’re the one who has to sit out there and tend to it.”

Despite the snow there have been a number of fire restrictions in place across the prairies.

No open fires. No fireworks. But carefully tended pits are fine… provided certain rules are followed.

Rules, such as using a fire screen cover atop your fire pit.

Caging your flames.

I cracked open a beer as the fire burned to a good base of hot coals. I’ve been working my way through a Grizzly Paw sampler pack since we visited the mountains last month and I picked up the beer right there at the microbrewery in Canmore.

This afternoon’s selection was called the Three Sisters Pale Ale, named for the triple peak mountain range that stands guard over the townsite below, down where the beer is brewed.

It was a fitting spring drink to complement the first burn of the new batch of firewood and a reward for hauling a cubic meter of logs from my driveway to the storage space behind the shed earlier this week.

Let’s also call it the small makeup drink from the alcohol-free hangover I endured on Thursday, the morning after joining club AstraZenenca and priming up my immune system against a future COVID invasion. No regrets, but that vaccine wasn’t giving free rides to many.

My caged flames burned down to a smoky bed of embers and I cautiously added a bit more wood and some charcoal to maintain the heat level.

My low-smoke firepit and the so-called clean burning cedar is belching smoke into the neighbourhood and likely annoying my neighbours.

I should really focus. Tend those wild flames and pay a little less attention to my can of cold, crisp pale ale brewed in the mountains.

I should. It’s fine though.

“The smoke smells kinda nice.” My wife says as she comes outside to check on the progress of the cook and his fire. “Better than that pine we had before.”

“I guess.” I say, but smoke is smoke even if it smells less bad than other smoke.

I would just invite the neighbours over for a beer. No one minds smoke as much with a beer in their hand. But that vaccine doesn’t really kick in for a couple more weeks and even more restrictive than the local fire rules are the pandemic ones.

The pork loin hits the hot cast iron grates and the sizzling, spicy sounds fill the backyard and for a few minutes as I turn and prod and manage the heat against raw flesh I forget. Forget it all.

The smoke.

The neighbourhood.

The disease ravaging the world.

The cage is off, the flame unleashed, so that I can just cook.