Jul 28 2014

One Cuttlefish Hoe to Rule Them All

It’s bizarre how we wrap tasks in an artificial scaffolding of lists and timelines, knowing that, inevitably, a surprising gust of wind will blow through, crumbling your weak scaffolding as you scramble to rearrange timelines and to-dos. When it comes to yard maintenance and gardening goals for this summer, I entered June with a firm idea that we’d focus on growing vegetables in the pre-existing raised beds, while watching the patterns in the yard, observing sunlight, shade, and radiant heat.

We bought a home with two rectangles of “grass” in the front yard, untouched and shabby. I didn’t want to deal with the grass until next year, a lesson learned from previous undertakings of excitedly buying too many plants and too much compost and then having everything suffer because I didn’t have time to care for all of the new transplants. The small concession I gave to the front-yard was to reconstruct our raised bed from our former house and place it in a sunny left corner. This bed has already proven quite productive: I recently dug up fifteen pounds of potatoes and just planted four Waltham butternut squash starts, grown from Hudson Valley Seed Library seeds.

Of course, there’s an underlying reason that certain tasks become elevated to greater importance. Money, time, weather, exhaustion. Or irritation. About a month ago, we reached a point where we could no longer exit or enter the house without complaining about the ugly grass. “I hate the grass.” “I can’t wait to rip up the grass and plant perennials and a tree.” Or – “I always complain about giant swaths of grass in people’s front yards and now I’m that person.”

One weekend, rather impulsively, Justin and I looked at each other, determination and eagerness on both our faces, and strode down to the Portland Nursery. We were done with the grass. We shoved aside other tasks in the yard – building another raised bed, fixing the fence – and walked around the nursery, gathering ideas for perennial plants that might one day grow together to form a lovely, unified front yard garden. Our only purchase at the nursery that day was a cuttlefish hoe.

Have you seen this tool? It’s both impressive and impressively scary. One side features a sharp edged hoe, the other side a three pronged device. We flung it over our heads, landing the prongs into the sod and weeds and pulling up. It was a slow and laborious process, but very satisfying, if a bit primal. As a Game of Thrones viewer, I could easily see one of the Wildlings wielding a weapon just like this to great effect on the men of the Night’s Watch. As for me, the sod had it coming and I showed it no mercy. It took five hours, but we eventually ripped out two thirds of the right side of our front yard, amending the rock hard soil beneath with copious amounts of compost.

We then planted a selection of bushes, grasses, and bee and butterfly attractors (coreopsis, sedum, yarrow, artemisia) all designed to come back bigger and happier with each year. We saved a spot for a tree and set up an irrigation system to ensure that the transplants received adequate water to their roots. Now when I walk outside, I view part of the front yard tenderly, noticing when a certain plant has grown an inch or when another needs deadheading or more water. This perennial garden has created more “work” but the work is in inverse proportion to the pleasure it brings. I need a few months to let my muscles recover, and then Justin and I will be calling that cuttlefish hoe back to active duty to rip out the rest of the grass.

The other exciting and arduous task of June and July was tackling a giant pile of dirt and bamboo we inherited from the previous owners. I call it a compost pile for shorthand, and there seems to be some loamy stuff at the very bottom, but the top and middle are 99% bamboo stumps, roots, 12 foot tall sticks, weeds, ivy, sticks, and nuts from our filbert tree. We made hundreds of wheelbarrow trips to an eco-dumpter parked in our front area, while simultaneously ripping out a 14 x 8 foot swatch of ivy under three pine trees. The ivy vines went six or eight vines deep. Each time I thought I’d reached the end of one vine, another would pop up. (The cuttlefish hoe came in handy for this project, too, along with another Japanese garden tool, the hori hori knife).

As we rest our tired bodies from those two tasks, I can enjoy sitting on the deck staring at our tomatoes, two of which resemble small trees. The tomatoes, including seven that I grew from seed (Brandywide and Black Krim varieties) are excelling, putting out fruit and shoots at rapid speed. I pulled our two varieties of peas last month, replacing the two areas with fava beans and scarlet runner beans. I’ve also direct sowed Baker Creek dark red beets and added basil to every spare patch I can find. Scaffolding and structure be damned: July in the garden has been exhausting but also our most productive month to date.