My Pile: Clean Margins

I turn out the dog for his morning relief and am standing in the front yard when a cherry-picker and a covered dump truck hauling a chipper pull into the driveway of my across-the-street neighbor, one house down. The tree crew is there to remove a big old white pine that overhangs one of the two houses on the property.

Over the past several years, my neighbor has reaped what he sowed long ago. He’s lived in his house across the street for more than 50 years, raising a family, and, some years ago building a second house on the property where his grown daughter now lives. He’d planted a row of yews along the driveway that separates the two houses, and also placed pine trees in front of the new house, an A frame, he built for himself and his wife a couple decades ago. Behind both  houses is a ridge studded with ancient oak trees that grow from crevasses in the granite ledge.

His property, once a shady, private haven, has become an aerial minefield. Two nor’easters ago, a fallen oak took out his sailboat and deck, as well as a portion of his roof. He must have spent thousands of dollars on tree work, and still the yard is deeply shaded. The yew trees are now tall and spindly, long past their prime, as is the remaining white pine.

Like so many homeowners in the suburban Northeast, I face the same problems, a double-edged sword of Damocles hanging over me and my house. The tall trees on my property are stately and provide much shade and of course fodder for my pile. But they are also a hazard. Over the past few months, my next-door neighbors, an older couple who, like their neighbor directly across the street, have lived in their house for a half-century, have asked me to do something about the sycamore that rises from the border of my yard and spreads its long dappled branches over their house.

So as the tree crew sets up shop across the street, I ask the foreman to quote me a price on trimming the sycamore, as well as a large branch of a maple that extends over my own house. Almost as an after-thought, I ask him how much it would cost to take down the tall, gangly maple that rises from the backyard just in front of my pile. I’ve never much cared for the look of the tree; it’s a male maple with multiple trunks, one of which was trimmed 10 years ago when I first moved into my house, the amputated sight of which has always bothered my eye. Plus, its limbs cast shade over the largest stretch of lawn in the backyard and its roots infiltrate the lawn, garden beds and no doubt the base of my pile. I look forward to seeing the sun the tree now blocks and being rid of the unwanted invasive species. The scraggly maple’s best use now is for firewood, which I need. I tell the tree guy I’ll take the logs for firewood, and the rest of the trimmings as mulch to spread across my perennial beds.

His price is so reasonable I agree to the terms on the spot, and he says he’ll be back tomorrow morning to do the job.

I take the day off as a holiday, for seeing tree trimmers at work is a sight to behold. What you would need to pay me to climb a tree with a chainsaw would be far beyond the work I will be watching and paying for today. They begin at 8 am, backing an industrial-sized wood chipper attached to an enclosed dumpster truck onto the lawn. A worker scales the largest trunk of the maple with ropes and a small chain saw and begins to lop off the tallest branches, still thick with golden leaves, 40 feet up. The limbs fall straight to the ground, guided by his steady hand, where they are dragged to the chipper by a co-worker and fed into the grinder.

A tree crew takes down the scraggly maple that grows close to my pile.

A tree crew takes down the scraggly maple that grows close to my pile. Removing the maple from the back corner of the yard will allow other more valued plantings to prosper.

Some of the branches he ties off to a higher branch before lopping off, and lowers them by the ropes to the ground. Within an hour, he’s worked his way down the main trunk, sawing man-sized logs as he goes, which topple to the ground with heavy, pounding thuds.

I help the crews stack the logs of maple along the backside of the shed; the heaviest, longest pieces, which I asked to be left long to use as new borders for my pile, we roll over to the side of my pile. As the crew hauls the remaining branches over to the chipper, I rake up the thick layering of sawdust from around the trunk and drag the minced shavings on the small plastic tarp over to my pile. Sawdust takes a long time to break down, but its raw, granular nature makes it easy to add to the mix. Besides, I like abiding by the guiding philosophy of what grows on my property, stays on my property. Till death do us part.

My Spanish is not good enough to eloquently explain my pile and its purpose, but the workers get the point. The one with the chain saw asks me how low he should leave the stump, and I tell him through Spanglish and pantomime that I want it left tall enough to use as a perch to sit on and view my pile. He smiles and makes a last slice with the chain saw about a foot and a half high.

The crew then sets up the cherry picker in my neighbor’s driveway and lifts it high to trim the sycamore branches, first from above the neighbor’s property, then on my side. The tree has dropped some of its leaves but is mostly green, the branches heavy with countless hard spheres of sycamore nuts the size and weight of golf balls. Before long tree is shaped and trimmed and my yard is covered with small branches tousled with the sycamore balls. The branches are stuffed wholesale into the chipper, which spews a steady stream of dusty mulch into the dumpster.


Removing the branches of the sycamore on my property that hang dangerously over by neighbor's house.

Workers in a cherry picker trim the branches of the sycamore on my property that hang dangerously over by neighbor’s house.

As the crew moves the articulated lift to trim the third tree, the maple over the other corner of my property, I spread all three of my plastic tarps across the gravel driveway on the front side of my house. I ask the foreman to dump the chips produced by my trees onto the tarps, figuring I could make easy work of spreading the homemade mix of mulch back across the garden beds.

I hadn’t thought to check the covered dumpster for what was already in it. The dumpster was still half full from the crew’s job the day before, and I watch slack-jawed as the back bed rises to disgorge a truly daunting amount of shredded trees. The pile spills over all three tarps and onto the grass on either side of the driveway. The crown of the pile is nearly head high. You could hide an SUV under the pile, it’s so big.

A bright new horizon over the yard and neighbor's and a daunting pile of chips to be spread.

A bright new horizon over the yard and neighbor’s and a daunting pile of chips to be spread.

The tree crew is gone by lunchtime. My neighbors come out to review the tree work and are greatly relieved to see the ponderous limbs that once spread over their parked cars in the driveway have been amputated back to near the property line. I ponder the task of dispensing all the resulting chipped-up wood and know now that I will have a busy weekend ahead.

Before I spread the chips throughout the perennial beds that border my property and ring the lawn, I need to do some spadework. It’s been two season since I last added mulch chips to the garden beds; last year I spread loads of finished compost atop them. Since then, the border between grass and the gardens has become a ragged line. The creeping ryegrass has infiltrated the garden bed, and the self-seeding perennial flowers, mostly black-eyed susan and cleome, have spread into the no-man’s land as well.

I take the flat shovel from its perch in the shed and the wheelbarrow to the beginning of the perennial bed. Time for some border control.

“Clean margins” is a phrase that I first heard when my son’s mother, then my fiancée and now my long-since former wife, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the many procedures that followed, her surgeon always talked about getting clean margins around the cancerous tumors that had spread from her chest to the lymph nodes under her left shoulder and arm.

To this day, it is a mantra that turns over in my head as I go about the busy work of snipping, pruning, edging and other forms of surgery that helps ensure that all the plantings play well together in the sandbox that is my backyard. Gardening is as much about nurturing and celebrating differentiation — creating a diverse, interconnected landscape where all can thrive within their own places — as it is about protection, rooting out malignant growth, maintaining order.

I look overhead at the sawn-off branches that now stop safely short of my neighbor’s house and my own, and feel good about doing what I can to protect all from falling harm. Clean margins. The thought remains with me in a more meditative way as I stomp on the shovel to etch a new sharp new boundary between the lawn and the garden bed, plucking away clumps of encroaching grass and weeds. Clean margins.

I take a break from the tedious task of stepping on the shovel and drag the plastic tarp of culled sod over to my pile. Usually when I weed the invasive grass from along these borders, I take the fullest clumps of turf – which always seems to grow thick and deep-rooted in this interregnum between lawn and garden – and tuck them into bare patches around the yard. But this year the lawn is already thick, filled in by the reseeding of last month. So I toss the chunks of sod onto the plastic tarp and drag the lot over to my pile. More dirt than grass, the clumps will add a new mass of biology to my pile, heft and weight, as no doubt all kinds of living things and decomposers that dwell in the root zone. My pile nurtures both lawn and trees and garden, and they in turn nurture it.

Before I toss the sod onto my pile I take the rake and bedsheet over to the street. It is tree-lined with maple, sycamore and a white pine that rise above the hedge of forsythia; its streetside border is thick with leaves swept into windrows by passing cars. The pine has sloughed off the oldest of its long slender needles, a yearly molting that leaves a matted layer of pale yellow pick-up sticks on both lawn and pavement. I rake the slender needles off the grass lawn, back under the pine. Not worth much in a compost pile, the pine straw does make a tidy ground cover.

The wind-blown leaves along the street make easy pickings. I sweep them into several piles about the size of the bedsheet, and gather them in loads I sling over my shoulder and unfurl across the pile. The leaves rise my pile high, but I know they will soon be overburdened by much denser stuff. In just a few minutes, I take four bedsheets full from my side of the street and my neighbors, easy fodder for my pile and a clean sweep of gutters for a coming storm. More clean margins.

For all its sprawling, come-what-may makeup, my pile has margins, too. I’ve already reset the log walls that border it side to side. I take a break from stomping on the shovel to stretch the wire fence back across the tallest two logs at the back, hammering staples into the rotted bark. Soon the fence will strain to contain the leaves that press against it, presenting a cross section of coming compost that I will monitor on through the coming year. Clean margins.

Preparing the garden beds for a fresh covering of mulched wood chips and leaves by re-establishing the border between flowers and grass.

Preparing the garden beds for a fresh covering of mulched wood chips and leaves by re-establishing the border between flowers and grass.



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