Tools to match the toughest job
The urban farmer Elizabeth Bee Ayer has a tool she recommends for special shrub-removal jobs: a cellular telephone. If you can’t close two hands around the trunk of a woody plant, you would do well to call an arborist.
“You don’t know how big the roots are going to be,” Ayer said the other day from her desk at the High School for Public Service in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where she directs the youth farm. “Most of the things I find we deal with in most community gardens are of a size we can dig out manually with a shovel.”
About that shovel: severing roots with a dull spade is about as much fun as slicing a buttercup squash with a butter knife. Chris Roddick, the grounds foreman at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, suggests using a flat file to sharpen the front edge of the spade. If the shovel is cheap, the steel probably won’t hold an edge.
“A good spade will cost you a hundred bucks,” Roddick said. “I think what I have now is from A.M. Leonard horticulture supply. It’s all metal and I’ve had that for years.” A.M. Leonard Horticultural Tool and Supply Co. can be reached at 1-800-543-8955 or amleo.com.
Pro: The shovel is heavy for striking through roots. Con: It will carry a jolt if you hit the electric line that powers the lights or the pump on the trout pond.
The best way to use a new pair of loppers or a shiny pruning saw is to leave it in the shed.
“What you don’t want to do is use your nice, really expensive handsaw, because you’ll dull it out in, like, five minutes,” Roddick said.
If you’re feeling extravagant, Ayer swears by her Felco pruners (as does just about every other discriminating gardener). They fit her hands, which are on the small side. And Felco offers a line of replacement parts.
“When you’re buying tools, they’re really an investment,” she said.
You can sometimes find Felcos at the Home Depot. Not being the big-box-store type, Ayer would probably be happier if you ordered those Felcos from Fedco, the Maine cooperative whose online store includes pop-out quotes from George McGovern, the former senator who died last year.
When you can’t snip your way to success, it may be time to pry. Would a tire jack work? Perhaps.
Alternately, a digging bar (sometimes called a San Angelo bar) is one of the least subtle instruments you can imagine. It’s six or eight feet long and weighs upward of 17 pounds. This is a tool not to ship, but to pick up at the local hardware store.
A digging bar could probably settle most interpersonal disputes. But a bush may not bow to intimidation. More persuasive, Roddick said, is a “two-ton come-along — it’s like a cable with a reel that will ratchet.”
To use this hand winch, you need a strong anchor, he said. Something like a tree, wrapped with some kind of padding for protection.
And if you don’t have a tree handy? Why not plant one right next to the shrub?
— Michael Tortorello, New York Times News Service
I am the Lorax. I speak for the shrubs.
The vow lacks gravity, doesn’t it? Dr. Seuss’s brownish and mossy eco-warrior never made a fuss about the sanctity of a privet hedge. And neither do I.
A few weeks ago, I resolved to extirpate some shrubbery and make way for a 150-square-foot vegetable bed. My situation may sound familiar to any homeowner who ever walked his property and wished a food garden would magically materialize. This spot looks too shady; that one serves as the croquet lawn for the annual Flag Day clambake.
Take the yard of my condo (please!). It appears plenty big for a city lot: close to half an acre. But when you move into a converted house whose quasquicentennial has come and gone, you don’t start with bare ground.
Over the decades, various gardeners have littered the communal space with their silly schemes. And then they moved on to greener lawns — or got to know dirt on a permanent basis.
Indeed, no one (living) in the condo association claimed custody of the half-dozen-odd beach roses loitering next to the garage. They were nine feet tall, multi-trunked and mostly bloomless. As ornamentals, these shrubs were strictly bush league.
I felt no moral compunction about uprooting the lot of them. But dread — that was another matter.
I remember what happened the last time I squared off with a woody perennial: Syringa vulgaris, the common (or vulgar) lilac. Yes, the shrub’s lavender blossoms bore the beautiful tuft and perfume of Seuss’s flowering Truffula tree. For about six days a year. The remaining 51 weeks, the lilac gathered powdery mildew on its dull leaves while asserting squatter’s rights to 300 square feet of ground.
Against the lilac, I marshaled a squad of five stout champions, fortified with digging spades and loppers. For reinforcement, we could call upon a seasoned pickup truck with cables fixed to the hitch.
All of these tools worked about the same, which was not at all. There was no discrete “root” to sever and remove; the whole yard was root.
Ten years later, rather than repeat that folly with the overgrown Rosaceae, I sought counsel from an experienced bushwhacker at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Chris Roddick, 48, an arborist and grounds foreman.
Voice of experience
“This is hard work,” he said. “It’s why people hire gardeners. This is the kind of gardening they don’t show you on the gardening channels.”
The root of the problem was the roots. Depending on the soil, “the deepest probably is 18 inches,” Roddick said. “Most of it is probably less than a foot. As they go deeper, there’s less oxygen in the soil.”
The roots spread out horizontally, though, like an anarchist’s org chart. What held the shrub in place was no more than friction. And no less.
“Here’s what I would do,” Roddick said. “I would cut them to about three feet above the ground. Three or even four feet, depending on how thick the stems are. That’s where you’re going to get leverage from. You don’t want to cut them to the base, and then you have nothing to pull on. A lot of people make that mistake.”
He continued: “Then you start taking either a spade or a pickax, and you start trenching around the plant — as if you were going to transplant it — two to three feet from the plant.”
One person would need to take hold of the trunk, he said, and “shake it back and forth.”
“Kind of like popping a tooth out,” he said. “While you’re shaking it back and forth you’re going to feel the roots on the side of the plant. And you’ll cut there.”
A few surgical instruments could be counted on to kill the patient. A sharp spade would be a crude scalpel to amputate the roots. The thickest arteries might yield to loppers or an old handsaw.
Alternately, I could try to dislodge the plant with a digging bar. This is a stupid-heavy six-foot-long pole that would also prove useful for chipping ice or bludgeoning a bear. Later on, I could hoist the sclerotic root ball overhead and make my primal holler.
“You’re going to get really dirty,” Roddick said.
“But when it’s done,” he added, “you’re going to have a trophy, like antlers, you can hang above the mantel.” Which is more or less what happened the following Sunday afternoon, when five of my friends and 12 of our young apprentices converged on the yard. We jumped up and down on shovels and swung the pickax. (I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a keen idea to give a handsaw to an unsupervised 5-year-old. But my son would.) And we heaped the thorny foliage into a kind of vegetative barbed-wire fence, which would make a great design feature for an eco-friendly supermax prison.
At one point, my friend Joel Turnipseed (yes, that’s his real name) yelled out, “F x L EQUALS T.” Joel used to be a truck driver in the Marines; he wrote an idiosyncratic memoir of the Persian Gulf War. And I had an intimation, standing there in the yard, that military culture might have been a tough fit. Then he spelled it out: “Force times leverage equals torque!”
The root of these shrubs
Yes, it does, more or less. And so the shrubs came up from the dirt — first quickly, then slowly. In the end, I found myself with a question: If a few shrubs presented such a nuisance, how had early American farmers ever managed to clear 300-year-old stands of hardwood trees?
As it happens, Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, examined this very subject in a fascinating 1995 monograph titled “The Great Change Begins: Settling the Forest of Central New York” (published in the journal New York History).
Starting in the Federalist era, Taylor explains, the population of New York quadrupled in just three decades, reaching 1,372,812 in 1820. German and Dutch farmers stuck to the fertile floodplains of the Hudson Valley, where one surveyor reported, “The Flats in general are easy Cleared; in many Places a Man might Clear an Acre in a Day.”
The same task might take two weeks for the “Yankee” settlers, who moved from New England to the wooded uplands north and west of Albany. The deforestation there was methodical and grueling labor, Taylor writes. “There were five steps to the Yankee system: felling, logging, drying, burning, and ash-gathering.” The chopping started in spring. Next, the ax men would cleave the trunks into 14-foot-long logs and stack them, using teams of oxen. After a hot summer, and often a winter, the Yankee landowners would torch the whole pile. These fires would be spectacular and terrible to behold.
The bushels of remnant ash held a cash value in the industrial marketplace. (An acre’s worth of ash might fetch $3.25 to $6.25, more than half the cost of hiring a crew to clear another acre of wood.) Potash, the finished product, would be exported to Britain’s textile mills and soaperies. And while some farmers reused their ash as fertilizer, the health of the land itself was decidedly an afterthought.
The legacy of clearing land was invasive weeds, Taylor writes. The waysides burgeoned with “burdock, nettle, thistle, chickweed, purslane, dock, mulleins, burweed, doorweed, plantains, pigweed, and goosefoot.”
In other words, most of the weeds in my yard.