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My son, the pyro

Nick had a choice. He could prune vines or go on poop patrol. He chose vine pruning.

Maybe it was having a choice or having to work outside, but he faced the day cheerfully. We planned working in the yard a couple of hours and he pulled his shoes on when I told him it was time. He retrieved the tools we needed: pruner, a couple of pairs of shears, and a bow saw. When he was ready, he called to me. “Hey, dad, let’s go.” I came around the back of the house and he stood there, shears in hand and a smile on his face. “Two buds?”

He’d been a quick study. We’d pruned vines and trimmed trees in the front yard the week before. I showed him what canes on the vines I wanted to keep. For vines that had taps, I showed him where to cut the canes, leaving two buds for the coming season’s growth.

Now in the back yard, I pointed out to him the canes I wanted to keep and which to trim away. I went to my work with a little doggie shovel, picking up what the dogs had deposited over the winter. It was an easy job that made Nick squeamish. But I didn’t have to bend over, didn’t have to get my hands dirty. The shovel worked like a scissors, with handles at the top and little rakes on the bottom. All I had to do was find my quarry, place the rakes on either side of it, and push the handles together.

While I was filling a five-gallon bucket with biscuits, Nick went to work on the vines. We have a couple of different varieties: Baco Noir, Leon Millot, concord, and catawba. The Baco is the hardiest of the bunch. Untrimmed or untrained, the canes can grow upwards of 55 feet in a season. (I measured once.) It had enveloped the side patio, sending out tendrils and vine through the step ladder, barbeque grille, and a couple of old bikes I should get rid of. It spread spider-like over the fence around the patio.

Nick spent ten minutes snipping and cutting, untangling and gathering before he cleared the small patio. He then went to work on the vine itself, choosing where to cut the canes by carefully counting buds. He piled the cut vines at the corner of the house, and soon had a wad he could grasp at one end and drag up the steep hill to the back gate. As he went, twenty-five feet of vines trailed him.

Once out the back gate, he made for the brush pile we’d started the week before with apple, hawthorn, and river birch branches, as well as the vines we’d cut off the trellis of the small deck that sits outside the front door.

He worked his way up the fence to the Leon Millot. While essentially the same clone as the Baco Nior, the Millot isn’t as hardy. While it’s an enthusiastic grower, it’s vines weren’t as long or elaborate as the Baco. He made short work of that and moved to the concord, a spindly little vine known for its heavy grape production.

With the concord, he encountered a summer’s worth of morning glory and cinquefoil growth. The morning glory is an annual that grows weed-like on anything standing upright—natural or manmade. Cinquefoil is a perennial that grows from deep-growing roots. They both leave dried twists up and over the fence. Cinquefoil, in particular, is an invasive, noxious weed that we started having problems with about five years ago. It looks a lot like strawberries but spreads in long branches that envelop anything they grow on. They are particularly unpleasant, as the skin of the plant is really a series of tiny thorny teeth. Zipped across an arm or calf, it leaves a wound that resembles rope burn.

The fortunate part of the tale is that when the cinquefoil is dried out and dies back, it can easily be pealed off whatever it’s covered, in this case a fence. The layer of morning glory and cinquefoil rolled off the fence and the underlying vine like carpet. Nick picked up a three-foot ball of the stuff and asked how the plant got to be so prevalent in the garden. “Neglect, son,” I said. “Your father’s a lazy gardner. I prune and trim once a year. Then I just let it grow. Whatever takes over, takes over.”

“Why do you do it, then?” he asked.

“Because it looks so nice in the early season. By the time the morning glory and this other weed really get going, it’s hot summer and no one but me comes out to the yard then.”

That’s not quite true. I plan every year around this time to be a good gardner. I will keep up with the work. Vines don’t take much attention, just a snipping every other week or so. The morning glory and cinquefoil are so advanced at this stage, that I will have to be out there with RoundUp every other week, spraying new growth. I plan to do it, but things get in the way. My mental illness is always a factor. School and family and other work get in the way. Before I know it, it’s August and the backyard is a rugged mess.

Fortunately, I have Nick’s help to keep things under control this year. I will show him what needs to be done and we will both be out there, maybe not always together, but we will be out there, spraying and cutting.

Maybe this year, I will net the grapes so we can get some before the birds do. On the other hand, it’s not all bad to let the garden go wild. While robins and cardinals get most of the take, a host of other birds visit the garden as the grapes ripen. House wrens, purple finches, dark-eyed juncos, house finches, and several kinds of sparrows frequent our little urban outpost.

The whole operation only took us a couple of hours. We:

  1. picked up all the poop,
  2. trimmed back the wild false indigo,
  3. cut back the roses,
  4. pruned the grape vines,
  5. cleared the fences and rock walls of invasives,
  6. and bonsaied the silver maple. (I have a silver maple that should be about 40 feet tall by now. But through judicious and often unorganized and unrestrained branch pruning, I have kept it to only eight feet tall. Should I ever let it get away, it will grow ten feet or more a year until it’s 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide, smothering the buckeye growing above it and taking over the back yard. It also doesn’t do to have a silver maple close to the house. Due to it fast growth, it produces brittle wood and is easily the home insurance adjuster’s nightmare.)

Now, we have a brush pile in the alley about eight feet high, twenty feet long, and nine feet wide. It’s amazing when you consider how tiny our yard really is.

When Nick and I were finished, we looked over the pile and I thanked Nick for his work. Imagine, I said, if it was just one of us, how long that would have take to do all this work.

“Quite a while,” he said. “Now that I’m looking at this pile, you know what I want to do?”

“What’s that?”

“I want to throw a match in it. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

“Sure would.”

“But I’d get to do it,” he said. “All you did was pick up poop.”

A chip off the old block that kid is.

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