Each spring I give my garden a root canal. My instruments consist of a shovel and pick.
I approach the garden, tools in hand, in my best bedside manner. "This will hurt me more than it will you," I say.
Then I dig a deep trench, or canal, all around its perimeter in an effort to keep out the rampaging tree roots from two large nearby maples. This is a back-breaking job, but I've run out of options. The roots keep coming, past the "No Trespassing" signs at the edge of the bed. Even now those roots are hurtling at Amtrak speed through the soft garden loam, stopping only long enough to wrap their long hairy tendrils around some luscious perennial, probably the asparagus.
It's my job to thwart Mother Nature, but she can be tricky. Last year, one sneaky maple root tunneled beneath my trench and struck 6 feet into the garden. I discovered the root while planting tomatoes, then severed it with an ax. Exasperated, I turned toward the maple tree and shook its appendage over my head.
"Cut it out!" I barked. The dog slunk off to hide. The tree just stood there laughing, or so it seemed.
I kept that big old root as a memento. I painted it black and hung it in the garden shed. The root of all evil, I call it. I was proud of my catch until I heard about the monster that a California man pulled out of a drain pipe in November. That root, from a potted ficus tree, measured 69 feet, 10 inches.
"I'm gonna hang that sucker over my fireplace," says Enzo Villavisencio, 29, a crewman for Roto-Rooter Sewer Drain Service in Los Angeles.
Villavisencio bagged it single-handedly while cleaning a clogged 2-inch metal drain in an underground parking garage at a Marina Del Rey condominium. The root came from a ficus tree growing in a planter that had been moved atop the drain 20 years ago.
When the roots found the damp drainpipe, they went berserk. When Villavisencio found the roots, he went to work. A two-hour struggle followed, man against root. Grudgingly the root succumbed to Villavisencio's best efforts.
"I felt like the magician who keeps pulling an endless handkerchief from his pocket," says Villavisencio. "People walked by saying, 'That thing isn't going to come up into my toilet, is it?' "
The ficus tree itself was destroyed by the condo's owner before he arrived, says Villavisencio.
The root grew rapidly in stature. It took first place in Roto-Rooter's second annual Monster Root Contest, where it easily defeated competing roots from Rochester, N.Y. (a 52-foot, 9-inch willow), and Carson City, Nev. (a 47-foot, 3-inch cottonwood).
Other entries, none of which was from Maryland, included a 43-foot poplar root from Portland, Ore.; a 30-foot oak from Orlando, Fla., and a 22-foot silver maple from Kalamazoo, Mich.
All of the above will be inducted into Roto-Rooter's Monster Root Hall of Fame in Des Moines, Iowa, as will a 66-foot willow root that shattered tragically while being hauled out of a home drain in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.
The Monster Root Hall of Fame accepts photographs only. The roots themselves tend to smell.
"Most of the pictures are of our men holding the tree roots in their hands, like a prize fish," says Jane Aries, spokeswoman for Roto-Rooter.
It is the grand winner, however, that has captured the public's imagination. Newspapers and TV crews clamored to photograph the champion. Villavisencio and his Traveling Ficus Root were also scheduled to appear on both "The Tonight Show" and "Arsenio Hall."
"This is the Moby Dick of tree roots," says Chuck Romick, owner of the Los Angeles Roto-Rooter franchise. "Tarzan could swing from it. We're thinking of cutting off pieces for souvenirs."
Romick's shop also won the first Monster Root Contest in 1990 with a 46-foot specimen from a rubber tree.
"I ought to get the Vince Lombardi Trophy for coaching these guys how to get these roots out," says Romick.
To prolong the "life" of the dead root, Romick built a wading pool in his shop to keep it moist. "It looks like a serpent," he says. "I'm just glad tree roots don't have teeth, or I'd be worried. This thing would scare King Kong."