Planted Parenthood

THE REAL DIRT

September 11, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

There are 64 trees in our yard, most of them well-behaved. They grow where they're told, stand up straight and never fall on strangers.

I have great hopes for these trees, many of which show signs of becoming real shady characters -- not a bad end for maples and oaks.

Most of our trees have reached adolescence and can take care of themselves. They are mature enough to cope with the perils of suburban life without my rushing over every time they meet up with a scratching cat, a wetting dog or a biting lawn mower.

My tree-sitting days are over. In fact, I can leave my trees alone for weeks, in blazing heat and bitter cold. Latch-key trees, I call them. The only nurturing they get now is an occasional hug, while I can still wrap my arms around their trunks.

Then I'm off to the garden, to nurse the flowers and vegetables that need constant attention.

Until recently, I've believed that I was through being a tree nanny. But I've noticed a 4-foot evergreen growing in a corner of the vegetable patch.

The tree, a healthy, strapping pine, seems to have shot up overnight. It is almost as tall as the nearby tomatoes, which must have hidden the tree's presence all summer. An enterprising cherry tomato plant is using the sturdy young evergreen as a living stake, twining itself around the tree's branches. The limbs seem laden with bright red ornaments ripe for the eating. I feel like piling gifts beneath the tree.

But where did it come from? Did the tree spring from a wind-blown seed? Did my neighbor Angelo plant it as a prank while we were on vacation?

Could I have planted the tree without knowing it? At night, perhaps, while in a horticultural daze? Each spring, when the yard chores pile up, I feel like I'm gardening around the clock. I've heard of sleep-walking. What about sleep-gardening?

Certainly, I hadn't planted the pine in broad daylight. No sane gardener would ever plant a tree in a vegetable patch, unless caught in a pinch.

For instance: Your child brings home a seedling from grade school, with orders to plant it, except that it's winter, which is a bad time to plant trees, and she starts crying and says she has already given it a name, so you grab the darn thing and stick it in the first soft piece of ground you find. The next day, you've forgotten it.

Oops.

I'd completely forgotten the scrawny tree Beth brought home five years ago. It was a pitiful thing, barely 3 inches tall, a twig with two wispy hairs dangling from it. So much for roots.

But to a wide-eyed third-grader, that sorry-looking seedling was a sequoia-to-be. Beth cradled it like a baby on the school bus and carried it into the house as if it were a new member of the family.

"Look what Mrs. Teesdale gave us, Daddy!" she exclaimed. Mrs. Teesdale was Beth's teacher, a resourceful woman with an environmental bent.

I feigned excitement, knowing full well the tree was doomed. But Beth had already named her little friend Furry. So we trudged outside, grabbed a shovel and carved a small hole in the earth.

We planted the seedling after studying it closely to determine which end was up. It's hard to tell when there are only two roots.

"There," I said, patting the soil around Furry's base. "Your tree will be safe in the garden until spring. Then we'll find a nice home for it in the yard."

Come spring, the tiny pine had slipped my mind. But not Beth's. That year she asked for her first garden plot -- the corner where Furry was planted. She has cared for the tree ever since. I stumbled onto it last week.

I was stunned by Furry's size. I also feared for the future of my garden.

"Why didn't you ask me to move the tree?" I asked Beth.

"I did," she said, exasperated. "I've asked you every spring, when you're running around like crazy."

Whoops.

This fall, we'll transplant Furry far from the garden. It won't be as easy this time. We'll transport the tree by wheelbarrow, not by hand. And I'll huff and puff while digging the hole.

Then Beth and I will lower Furry into the ground, pat the soil around its base and nurse the tree for a few years.

HTC I guess my tree-sitting days aren't over, although Beth has been doing pretty well without me.

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