19 March 2010

Hard Work

My goodness I'm going to be sore for the next few days.
So we have an orchard, out back behind the garage. I call it an orchard; right now it's actually only seven trees, five apples and two peaches. I call it an orchard as a sort of inspiration; in three or four years' time I see twenty plus trees extending down the hillside from the current orchard. But there's a lot of work between now and then.
When we bought the property, the land that is now the orchard was completely overgrown. A large nearby pecan tree had spread pecan saplings throughout the area, and those were mixed in with an assortment of small junipers and scrubby deciduous trees, one large old Bradford Pear (aka the Chinese Stinking Pear, Pyrus calleryana), vast stands of pokeweed, and a dense collection of broadleaved weeds, and the whole thing was overgrown with vines of all kinds: honeysuckle, poison ivy, greenbriar, and some sort of bramble that doesn't seem to produce actual blackberries. Last spring I rented a huge brushmower and, together with some friends, we cut all this crap down. There was a black willow back there, the only willow on the property, and we cut down trees and mowed weeds and hacked through brush until we reached the willow tree. This gave me about enough room to plant seven trees.
Of course we didn't cut down all the pecans, because we weren't sure what to do with the area yet. And those we did cut down sprouted from the stumps--as did the horrible pear, which was covered in half-inch thorns, more like spikes than thorns. I tried to keep the area mowed down to a reasonable level with my brushcutter, but it was a war of gradual attrition and I was never going to get ahead of the vines. The weeds and such I could handle; the vines I wanted gone, but a brushcutter won't cure that problem.
Then this December Smittywife and I broke down and bought six fruit trees: two peaches (an Elberta and a Belle of Georgia), two Yates apples, and two Arkansas Black apples (my favorite variety, although the Yates are terrific). They were five bucks each so it was tough to resist (we bought two blueberries at the same time, but they're in a different part of the yard). I planted all six trees in what I've begun calling the orchard (later we picked up a seventh, an Ein Shemer apple, which is an Israeli variety bred for drier weather), and mowed the area down with the brushcutter. But all those vines were still there.
Now it's getting to be time for us to set vegetables out, and despite having built six garden beds I've realized we don't have enough space to set out all our seedlings and sow some vegetables from seed, in particular bush beans (which I would like to have a lot of). I thought, why not till up the soil in the orchard and plant the beans in between the trees? Beans are good for the soil, and there's no soil in this yard that couldn't use some help. But oh, the vines. As soon as it warms sufficiently (it's already started), the honeysuckle will take over back there, and the poison ivy and bramble won't be far behind. Then there'll be the late-summer explosion of Sida rhombifolia, a weed which wouldn't be that bad if there wasn't so damn much of it.
The only way to handle this is to get rid of all the vines, which means pulling them out by the roots. This is hard under any circumstances (especially with bramble), but even tougher in heavy clay soils like we have here. And no matter how hard I tried I wouldn't get all of it. The only thing to do is till.
A tiller, however, is not something I own. Nor is it something I care to rent for the price they charge, and buying one, at over $500 (it has to be a rear-tine tiller or it will just skip off the clay), is out of the question. I have a pickaxe, though, and I've used it to plant most of the trees in the yard, and some of the roses, and to dig up the flowerbeds we put in last year. The flat blade of the pickaxe really breaks up the clay, and cuts through any roots or vines in the way.
And it only weighs about four pounds, so it's not heavy.
Until you've swung it for an hour straight into heavy clay and tree roots. I'm finally getting through all the roots from those pecans (and the evil pear) we cut down, so maybe they won't sprout again this year, but that takes some doing. And being sure I've cut through all the vines down to the roots, that takes some doing as well.
In three days I've managed to get about a quarter of the orchard tilled, maybe a third. It will be next week before I'm done. I may need more Aleve.
But you know, there's something wonderful about wearing yourself out doing physical labor. I feel so much better at the end of the day, even though I also feel worse. Either way, I'm not sure there's anything I'd rather be doing.

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