Chapter 1

The fence, the quince, and the black bamboo. Part 2.

Kieran Egan



Continued . . . .

With the new 2" by 4"s under the center of the base stringers, the sagging problem was solved. You can see the result in the picture below. We're getting ahead of ourselves with this picture, as the bamboo is already in place. Pretend it isn't there. The trouble is that it wasn't till after I had put the bamboo in that the sag in the lower stringer became unignorable. You'll be able to see, if you look carefully, the upright 2" by 4" beneath the bottom stringer. To create a convincing barrier against even the most malevolent of the neighboring weeds, I also dug a further six inches under it and wedged in place some black plastic lawn edging. I slotted it snugly against the base of the 2" by 4", and packed the soil back around it on both sides. You can perhaps make it out as a black line below the bottom of the supporting 2" by 4". Nothing short of a three-headed titanium oil-well drill could get through now--I foolishly thought, not recognizing the ways in which the tender shoots of Morning Glory are more powerful than our most massively abrasive machines. Can you see that brazen strand of Morning Glory in the middle frame sneaking across the bottom stringer, headed towards the delicate black bamboo with nefarious intent?

Among the overgrown shrubs, the morning glory, the blackberry, weeds, and ivy next door was a japonica quince. You can get glimpses of it in some of the pictures above. In the first one with the posts in place on Page x you can see towards the right side something tied back with a whitish rope. That was my attempt to preserve the quince from my devastation of everything else along the fence line. Below is a picture of its delicate red flower peeking through the stained fence. You'll see why I wanted to preserve it. My fear was that if the lot was sold and someone got in a landscape gardener, as is common, and they started by razing the lot, the quince would be uprooted with everything else. When the neighbors were back for a clean up, I asked whether I might "liberate" the quince, and plant it on my side of the fence. Shirley, the neighbor, said yes, but warned me that moving it would not be easy.

It was early summer, and probably not the ideal time to try to move it, but the lot might sell at any time and I could lose it entirely. And how hard could it be to move a small tree? I began slicing around it, some distance from the multiple stems. This was to be brain-surgeon work, delicate and slowly persistent. Delicate and slowly persistent got a fair amount of soil moved, but had no impression at all on the rootedness of the quince. To make matters worse, its roots had cleverly matted themselves around some fair sized stones. I was clearing some serious space but, even though some of the stems began to move like loose teeth, the whole plant gripped the earth with admirable and infuriating tenacity.

By this time I was sweating, thirsty, and hungry. I had also dug a splendid hole for the damn thing on my side of the fence, which it could see if only it looked. I had even packed the hole with dark soil from my compost heap to welcome it. The roots seemed to go down for ever. I wanted to avoid cutting them, but couldn't get much further down and around the bowl of the roots, due to stones, to the roots themselves, and to the mess of other plants around. I had been patient, and persistent, and delicate. And then I got the mattock.

A few swings cleared earth down near Australia. It became clear why brain-surgeons don't much use mattocks in their work. Infuriatingly, a deep sideways slice cut under a part of the tree, and about a half of it flopped over. It had a fair amount of root attached, but the rest of the tree just stood there. Pulling carefully, then not at all carefully, I couldn't dislodge the rest, so I piled composted soil around it, and filled the hole, leaving it where it was. The liberated half I carried across the line to the prepared hole, dug it in, and then watered both sides profusely. With any luck, next spring I would have Japonica quince flowers on both sides of the fence. As the summer passed, the old rooted half of the tree drooped a little, then picked up and looked quite cheerful. The half on my side drooped, and drooped some more, and lost its leaves. We'll see if it flowers next spring.

The black bamboo

I also imagined a strip of about three feet in front of the fence where I would put a few patches of bamboo, growing through a covering of small stones. Why does one develop enthusiasms about things one knows nothing much about? Descriptions of black bamboo's ebony stems and rich green leaves made it sound romantically ideal. I should have attended a little more to what the books might have meant in calling it an "aggressive running variety". I faced two problems; first, finding some, and second, constraining it from taking over the city.

Black bamboo was a problem to find--at stupendously varying prices. [more?]

One has to contain its roots, or it will "run" rapidly and everywhere over the planet. Containment requires digging down about two feet or so, and then putting in a "water barrier"--a tough, flexible, impermeable plastic. I tried various nurseries in vain. I was directed to the one place in town that dealt in trees and everything to do with them.

I phoned and got directions, across town in an area of industrial roads and factories. It had been raining, and stopped just before I arrived. I stepped carefully through the mud-riddled yard, avoiding pools and streamlets, and ducked past massive machinery. The place was macho and surly beyond the muscled fantasies of the lumberyards. I passed tattooed and hairy guys, who chewed trees for breakfast, pulling huge chains off spools, and slinging cables in the back of pick-ups. They disdained to look at anyone not dripping oil and mud. I entered the shop through a side door from a huge covered storage and service area, where some long-haired and even more muscled mechanics were clanging on some huge-wheeled tractor.

The shop did little to change the ultra-macho impression of the tree fixing business. Most of what I could see piled on the floor and hanging randomly from walls seemed mainly designed for murdering trees rather than doing them good, with what seemed like a side-line in Hell's Angels' armaments. The floor was of broad dusty boards, that could have graced Dawson City in the gold rush days.

"I'll be down in a moment!" A woman's muffled voice from above, German accented. It seemed unlikely she would have heard me over the cacophony from the service area outside. Perhaps she could see me through the cracks between the planks that formed the floor above. I anticipated a Teutonic wrestler, sporting as much facial hair as some of the guys outside.

Down the wooden stairs came the unmistakable click of high-heels, and smiling a welcome was a young blond woman right out of one of those luxuriant fashion magazines. A light purple sweater--cashmere it looked like--with a neat skirt, and, I swear, a string of pearls.

What could she help me with? I described my desire to have three patches of black bamboo, and my desire not to have them take off at a gallop across the neighborhood. Water barrier! She seemed disproportionately delighted, as though I was a valued ally in the battle against uncontrolled bamboo. It came 4' in width, of any length I wished.

"I want to have three sets, each about three-feet long and maybe a foot and a half wide."

"So, three-feet and six-feet is nine-feet each one. By three. You should buy fifty-feet. You always need more."

She walked behind the plywood facing that blocked off the stairs, and came back a moment later wrestling with a mighty roll of deeply gleaming black plastic. Another woman came into the shop behind me.

"Can I help?" I asked.

"No, no. I can manage." I thought I shouldn't push the macho stuff in this setting, though the roll did seem not only awkward, slippery, and heavy, but to have a will of its own.

"Jane come and help." Presumably the Jane who had just entered was not a customer. As I looked around, she took off her coat and dropped it on the handle of what I was later to learn was that miraculous tool, a Come-Along. Jane seemed to be a school-girl, or perhaps a student, wearing jeans, a sweater quite unlike the German's, and had the lank and unkempt hair of the guys outside.

Jane held one end of the strong black plastic while the cashmere and pearls began to unroll it. It was very stiff, and unwilling to come off its roll without a struggle. As the German pulled the bulky roll, Jane found herself dragged sideways by the coiled force of the plastic. They had little room to work in, and each of them was bracing against the counter or the plywood wall to move it apart. Within minutes it seemed clear they were in a battle they weren't going to win easily. With about three feet unrolled, Jane was pulled forward and just stopped herself from falling, but her force toppled the precariously balanced roll till it thudded against the counter, the German woman hugging it and trying to pull it back.

They started with a few shouts of surprise and outrage, which became splutters of giggling. Jane tried to help by pushing against her end, but went over into it, falling and pushing the plastic over with her. This helped spring the roll away from the counter in the German embrace, and she went down sprawled not entirely gracefully legs astride it. Both women tried to haul themselves up, hindered by the uncooperative plastic. They absolutely refused to accept any help, and were by this point in tears of laughter at their ungainly struggle.

After some brutal minutes, in which the battle could have gone either way, they managed to work out a technique whereby Jane backed towards the Come-Along, pulling and dragging from side to side, while the German wobbled the roll while turning it, her pearls all the while clicking against the plastic. Once Jane had retreated to near the rear wall, the German began measuring, and put a piece of tape at the twenty-foot mark. Things became a bit nasty again, as Jane had now to roll up her end, while they simultaneously were trying to unwind it from the other end. By this time, laughter was seriously handicapping both women. But with heroic efforts, they managed somehow to get fifty-feet from the tight bail and roll it up in a carryable bundle. The German took up a utility cutter and sliced the roll from top to bottom with a deft wrist and the practiced ease of an Argentinean knife-fighter.

I paid, thanked them heartily, and strode out into the yard with the water barrier under my arm. As I tiptoed my way back across the muddy yard's pools and streams, various of the tattooed and oiled workers nodded and smiled, a few "Good afternoons", and one wished me luck with the water barrier. Perhaps I had been the surly one going in, and the happier man who came out elicited a happier response.

Back in my garden with the impressively black water barrier&emdash;it had that deep, mysterious, utter blackness of the slab in "2001"&emdash;I was now ready to get the bamboo into the ground. First I had to dig holes for it, about two to three feet down, and about two-foot wide and five-foot long. The soil in this area clearly generates stones. They are born as tiny pebbles and grow rapidly in the ground, like potatoes only without any sense of how to control their growth. The frustration of constantly having to dig out stones was alleviated a little by realizing they might come in handy for the garden.

As the day wore on, I wondered whether any of the neighbors might be wondering what I was up to. These holes looked suspiciously like graves. Perhaps they might be watching to see me later dragging cumbersome sacks over the lawn towards them. I dug down three feet or so, then measured and cut the black water barrier. My clumsy slicing led me to appreciate the skill of the German saleswoman. Everyone had told me how the bamboo would escape from the barrier if I left even a tiny gap, so I overlapped the two ends and stuck them together on both the inside and outside with double-sided, waterproof carpet tape. I slotted the roll of plastic into the grave, dumped back the soil I had just dug out, planted the bamboo and filled around it with the rest of the soil. I had been told that bamboo are quite happy with quite poor soil, which seemed a bit unlikely, so I gave each stand a fair dollop of spadefulls from the compost heap. Here's a picture of the second hole dug and the plastic in place. The first has the bamboo well watered in.

Once the three sets of bamboo were in place, I covered the strip in front of the fence&endash;whose planned edge is marked in the picture by the string to the right&endash;with landscape fabric to discourage weeds coming through. This material was quite new to me, as I'd never done any gardening except grow vegetables before. It seemed too easy. I left uncovered the areas inside the water-barriers around the bamboo, so they wouldn't have a problem sending up new shoots. Not that the bamboo would have the problem--it would come through concrete--but it might push up the fabric and disrupt the gravel and stones, generally making a mess.

The next preemptive strike against weeds was a generous layer of campactable gravel. The finishing step here is to cover the whole strip with decorative stones. Here is what it looked like when I had the bamboo in and was laying the gravel over the fabric:

Having got this finished I was able to turn to completing the fence. This involved staining the boards and fitting them in place between the stringers. It always surprised me when I had carefully measured things that, when I put them together, they actually fitted. Below is what it looks like stained. It looks pretty good, so far, I think, despite the uprights being a bit off and the slight sags here and there. Perfection isn't the name of the game--that would be to challenge the gods. But a border of paradise in place. Youll notice the wilting, and much-cut back japonica quince in the right foreground. I kept asking a neighbor what she thought I should do with it, and her advice was to cut back the greenery further, to reduce the strain on its establishing roots. It sounded plausible, but as I cut it back further and further, I began to wonder whether she remembered giving me this advice before, or whether she assumed I hadn't cut it back the last time. The final act was to choose the stones that would be used to cover the strip around the bamboo and quince. Was I to go garish and dramatic, or restrained . . .well, no contest, of course, though for a while I wasn't sure which of the following contenders pictured below would get the job. A black volcanic rock, a white landscaping stone, and then two kinds of small pebble.

I laid these out against the fence in different spots, and decided to go with the small gray pebbles in the front basket. They become nearly black when wet, and have an undramatic, dignified appearance. The purple stones in the red pail are more dramatic when wet, and, though attractive, are a tad garish for my purposes. They went very well with the green, but reminded me too much of the colors of just about every restaurant and public building of the past few years. Purple and green seem to have been every designer's favorite combination. I did find a use for them, though, when building the path behind the wall of the raised garden, as you'll see.

Having finished this impregnable fence, keeping anarchic nature on the other side, I set about digging out the pond, beginning the dry-stone wall that would contain the raised garden, paving the area behind the first stretch of wall, and so on. From each of these tasks I would occasionally look over at the fence, thinking that my floral foes were securely kept at bay. But within weeks I saw tendrils of green creeping across the crushed gravel, and even racing towards the bamboo! I couldn't believe it. The morning glory had clearly spent the weeks looking for tiny gaps and squeezing itself in. Why? It had a totally free range next door, and could spead where it wanted. Why was it spending its time and ingenuity looking for chinks in my defences? And this was no doubt just the beginning. I had impulses I shouldn't confess to in a book about gardening--connected with a foray next door armed with a flamethrower and a Schwartzenegger enthusiasm for using it.

And then, after a few more weeks during which I took some small pride in how well the bamboo had settled, I saw the leaping rhizomes. I have been slow to realise that gardening is war carried on by other means; the most ancient war which we languaged animals have fought against nature. Here I had gone to the trouble of digging in my smooth and flawlessly black industrial water-barrier, leaving it poke a couple of inches above the crushed gravel so that it might be level with the layer of stones still to come, and what is the bamboo trying to do within weeks of being given the hospitality of my paradise to-be? Not content with extending its shoots within what seems to me the entirely adequate confines of the space allotted, it is sending the rhizomes up into the air once they have hit the barrier underground, trying to leap over and dive into the ground on the outside of it. I go round with the secateurs and clip the rhizomes back, and begin to feel that I may have begun to battle with a far hardier warrior that I can begin to imagine. If this is what they are getting up to where I can see them, what is going on underground? Perhaps the three feet depth to which I have sunk the water barrier is laughable to these wildly proliferating giant grasses.

Mentioning bamboo is to invite horror stories. The Day of the Triffids is nothing compared to some of the stories I have been told, of unstoppable bamboo whose root mass was the size of a house, going down twenty feet, of the invasion of a neighboring yard and, before anyone knew, the bamboo had grown through the swimming pool, costing $15,000 to fix, of legal entanglements and eternal bitterness between neighbors, and of endless, hopeless attempts to control clumping forests of the stuff. Perhaps I will be able to add my catastrophe in a while.


On to building the pond

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