With a shovel and a loss, he's a Raven maniac

October 15, 2005|By ROB KASPER

Last weekend, as the pro football scene turned hellish, I took out my frustration by trying to uproot a Tree of Heaven.

My transistor radio gave details of the Ravens' 35-17 humiliating loss to the Detroit Lions while I started scooping dirt out of the backyard, trying to uproot the bushy, unimpressive growth. With each of the team's 21 penalties, I dug a little deeper. With each Ravens' mistake, I yanked a root a little harder. By the time the second Ravens player got ejected from the game, I was ready to dig to China.

This notion of channeling pent-up sports anger into physically demanding weekend chores is one I have been working on for some years. I have learned, for example, that I have to match the task with my mood. No job that requires a soft touch - cleaning a chandelier, replacing window glass - should be attempted while the Ravens are playing this poorly.

I say this as someone who once used to get so frustrated with the way "my team" was playing that I would storm in the bathroom and punch the shower curtain. Now I'm over that. Now I dig.

Sunday afternoon as the Ravens' radio team of Scott Garceau and Tom Matte described the disaster happening in Michigan, I furiously clawed at my Maryland soil.

My opponent, ailanthus altissima, was a tough and trashy tree. It is a non-native species that, thanks to a Philadelphia gardener, came to the United States from China in 1784. Now it can be found in almost every state of the United States and in every Maryland county.

Generally its presence is a sign of horticultural neglect. It thrives in alleys, along railroad tracks, between cracks in the pavement, in abandoned houses.

Its strongest and perhaps only proponent was Betty Smith, who made the tree a centerpiece of her 1945 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie Nolan, one of the novel's main characters, calls it a Tree of Heaven because it likes poor people. She also uses the tree as a metaphor for her life. No matter how many times it gets cut down, she notes, it always grows back with thicker branches, and wider leaves.

The Tree of Heaven in my backyard had certainly been resilient. I had tried to uproot it. But it was in such an inaccessible spot, wedged under the bottom of a fence and hugging a concrete parking pad, that in prior years I had to settle for simply hacking away at its trunk. This, it turned out, was not a wise move. Instead of killing it, I was sending it into a propagation frenzy, telling the tree to send out new roots. That is what Phil Panhill, an expert on battling ailanthus altissima, told me. Panhill is a regional watershed forester with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources office in Hagerstown.

Earlier in his career, he said, people would ask him how to get rid of this irksome tree. Sometimes the remedies he recommended worked, but other times, he said, they made things worse. So he conducted research, and developed, along with Jil Swearingen of the National Park Service, a carefully crafted guide to the tree. Published in 1992 (and available on the Web at nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/aial1.htm), it generates calls from Tree of Heaven haters around the world.

Methods listed included the basal bark treatment of spraying the bark of smaller trees with controlled amounts of herbicide, and the hack-and-squirt technique of making a limited number of cuts on a larger tree and squirting the cracks with herbicide.

I had not read Panhill's research before I started my Ravens-induced root work.

When I told him, in a telephone conversation late this week, about my digging, there was silence on the other end of the phone line. "You might not want to hear this," he finally said and told me how when the tree is attacked it sends out new roots "with great vigor."

Later, however, when I told him the size of the tree - 2 feet tall - the number and size of the roots I had removed - a 1-foot vertical root and four horizontal roots - Panhill said there was a chance that the tree might be vanquished.

The outcome will be clear next spring, he said. Then there will either be no sign of the Tree of Heaven, or it will be back with a vengeance, like a character in The Terminator.

So all that digging last weekend may or may not have been good horticulture. But I have little doubt it was good football fan therapy. This weekend I've got a shovel at the ready and my eye on another patch of ground, just in case the game turns ugly.

Go list

Got some digging to do? A panel of professional gardeners and landscapers recently rated various forks, spades and shovels and offered these recommendations:

Garden fork:

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