FUR COAT, NO KNICKERS: autumn gardening

This is a Dublin phrase meaning an odd prioritization of resources. It’s a common denunciation for uppity people with notions about themselves. It has nothing to do with pelts or underwear, it simply means someone spent a lot of money on a status symbol (however warm) and eschewed the basics (like covering your nether regions). It’s also an occasional series Aine O’Connor writes about austerity and its bizarre side-effects on gardening, cooking and fashionable textiles.

chain/saw massacre: Last year we began a feasibility study on the purchase of a stove. We found vintage versions and fab futuristic ones, we found out that multi-fuel ones are only as good as the flue they’re connected to and that growing your own solid wood to fill wood-burners takes more planning than the six months we’re prepared to think about it.

So the feasibility study stalled at buying the cheapest cast iron stove and the Necessary Add-ons Research progressed to stage two: Harvesting free or cheaply transported, stored and dried wood for a basic multi-fuel stove with a new flue that’s been connected to a repaired 60-year-old clay chimney.

Just in case you’ve begun to wonder if this is a droney bedtime story to help someone along to the land of nod, there is a point to this preamble.

Early in the R&D phase of the Blondie and Himself Buy A Fireplace Insert adventure we remembered why half the nation swapped from solid fuel fires to the push-button technology of turning on your central heating to accommodate your family’s lifestyle. Or your lifestyle if you’re a couple of adults able to program the fob key in your car. (The electronic car key tells the car it’s going home earlier than usual and the Didgereedoodadad App you wrote tells the GFCH or OFCH to turn on the radiators earlier or later than the timer’s set for.) (And no, I’m not that computer literate either.)

So we backed off the retro-fit idea while we eyed each other up wondering who’s going to clean out the fire every day, cut and dry kindling, re-stock the artfully arranged ledge holding the big blocks of wood and where’ll we stash the pizza boxes/newspapers/cardboard coffee cups that will supplement the non-pulped wood we’ll be throwing into the stove.

Having a gnat’s attention span (it’s why he loves me) I forgot why we’d paused the retrofit Big Idea and pushed ahead with the rearranging the waste disposal process to accommodate the stove, ie, automatically adding paper products to the nightly woodfire habit we’d acquired by mid-september last year. Stacking the garden wood waste in processed bundles was a harder habit to establish chez Blondie and Himself. But it happened. Over the course of last winter, this spring and summer we got into the habit of four or five compost heaps in the garden and shed. Woody waste gets chopped into stove-sized bundles and gets stored in two parts of the shed. There’s the fecky twiggy stuff and the tree trunk stuff.

BTW, this habit got established while we were figuring out what plants were going to survive till next year. A perfectly-placed forsythia got the heave ho! while the crowded, sulky one in the back garden got a stay of execution. A willow tree got included in the stove food store because it was bought as a Variegated Standard Something-or-other (that had been grafted onto a willow root, and wouldn’t you know, the willow thrived and the delicately variegated topiary ball first went entirely green, then went entirely brown, and then went entirely into the FFS! wood store.)

Sawing through seven-year-old roots, digging out stubbornly healthy root balls of two-foot diameter, or complacently chopping off the branches of a fir tree without rooting it out may be fine as an alternative to gym membership, but can also be unexpected expenses in the process of changing from one heating source to another. As happy gardeners we already had thick work gloves, hack and hand saws, short and long-handled shears, short and long-handled forks and spades, electric hedge trimmers, petrol chainsaws and padded anoraks allowing us dive into thorny thickets and densely-leaved trees.

As unhappy gardeners we watched and waited while a cold, wet winter and spring 2013 didn’t allow us out at the closest wood sources to hand: our 30-ft lelandii and ash trees. I may have forgotten to mention that Himself is a gentleman. He’s got a chivalrous streak in him that prefers to keep the dangerous household jobs to himself while I daintily stay at ground level to wield an ax or a hacksaw. He knows I was a Barbie doll at one point in my life, which prevented me from getting knacky at climbing trees and not falling off while sawing stonking great branches to the point where they reach the ground without taking out the neighbour’s prize wall/washing line/garden furniture. He forgets that I’ve often sheared, snapped and sawed smaller branches from the thrill-seekers’ platform of a tied ladder and he also forgets that if he said he’d get rid of the overgrown plant that needs some sort of surgery within the space of three or four months, and doesn’t, then I’m going to have a go. (At the tree that is, not him.)

Now, despite a lifetime of proving the contrary, I’m no eejit. I’ve resigned myself to keeping up appearances in the garden. I’ll weed, hoe, dig, prune, divide clumps and chance propagating existing plants. I’ll occasionally buy well-established flowering plants from nurseries to add colour or texture to a mass of green. But while the current austerity drive is the Prime Directive I’ll countenance nothing that needs hot-housing or cold-framing. Impulse buys have to pass the turbo-charged scornful Are You For Real?-o-meter in the garden as well as the house (which is more exhausting BTW than the digging, sawing, etc as I’ve to remember it every time we’re in danger of spending mad money).

The garden already has a ring-fenced budget for each season that comprises the parts for equipment, fertiliser, machine-hire and scavenging on free barter sites for the cheapest version of what the garden needs most urgently so it’ll be manageable again next year.

What it hasn’t got yet is a ring-fenced time allocation of work from me and him that we can stick to. We’re newlyweds, so we’re finding out by installment what our strengths are. Collectively they stretch to my having a greater knowledge of plant type and its properties, my having more time than him, and my having greater familiarity with what has thrived in this garden to date. His gardening chops lie in physical strength, market garden planting, and Man Stuff (electrical and electronic systems, industrial construction and experience in climbing trees).

Like many’s the Irish householder we’ve swapped adventure parks with abseiling and zip-wiring for chancing a trip up the ladder to clean the guttering on a bit of a windy day. As household chores still rate all the way up there in terms of excitement with having teeth pulled, we’re both wary of jobs that really should have safety wires, the co-operation of passing motor traffic or the speed and dexterity of someone who does this for a living. So I got a bit peeved with Himself when my almost perfect attempt at cutting back one of the 30ft trees got transmitted to our friends and relations as a serious question about my competence.

One step beyond: My beloved husband gets nervous when I start talking about literally swinging an ax. Fair enough, after all I get nervous when I’ve to start swinging an ax. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong. When the wood’s wet, the ground’s muddy and you’re not physically strong enough to wield the ax with enough heft to chop cleanly every time, you’ve to think about every cut. You’ve to wear safety goggles for stray splinters and you’ve to be patient enough to stop cutting and move onto either sawing or stacking and drying when you’re stumped. Har har.

Trees and axes don’t go together in our garden because we’re in a housing estate and there’s only about about three or four plants here that have enough space around them to let you even think of the lumberjack thing. Trees and saws and ladders can be put into the same sentence spoken aloud in our garden, depending on the weather and on whether or not there’s someone to help you chop the branch into stove-size pieces, or lever the branch with a rope while the designated lumberjack is up the ladder.

This is known. As they say in the Kalhisi queen’s tribe in Game of Thrones, this is known.

So we get to the great chain/saw massacre of summer 2013.

I haven’t used our petrol chainsaw. However, I’ve used all of our hand saws, shears, forks and spades. One day, while my beloved was far, far away in a foreign realm (he was in Luton, at a funeral), I descended from my gilded ivory tower and hearkened to the shed, whereupon I liberated the ladder, handsaw, shears and a sturdy chain from the farthest reaches of that dank and dusty place.

All was peachy, verily, until I surpassed myself with speed in pruning all the shrubs, stripping the wood of leaves, chopping the firewood to kindling and hoisting the greenery with a pitchfork into one of the compost heaps. During the course of the sunny morning I thought of my beloved, and knowing of his nervousness, wondered if I should text him while he was trapped 1000s of miles away and by the good manners of not calling his @*!!!!!&, gob-daw of a wife nasty names while he was comforting the bereaved. The text would have been simply: “Where’s the ax?” It would have been enough to first nettle and then shred his equanimity that all was as it should be in his home. I dismissed the texting idea as evil and happily went on tree-climbing and chopping.

Later that day I came a cropper on a branch that fell about 20 degrees out of the trajectory I’d been aiming for. Fab! I thought after the initial other word beginning with “f” that came to mind. It hadn’t fallen on anything that didn’t belong to us, was pretty much stuck where it was because it was jammed by weight onto its own tree and meshed at the leafy end by another tree beside it. However, in case of a freak high wind, I got the chain and flung it around the branch and tied it in place.

But I knew there’d be a terrible price to pay so I was rueing that last mis-step.

My sneaky foray into the world of lumberjacking had been blown wide open. Having spent the day successfully tackling branches of increasing girth and weight with the handsaw, my happy day would be marred by the thought of himself having the last word. “I told you I’d do it.” Or: “You were told not to cut trees during the summer.” Or: “You should know better at your age.” Or: “I thought you said you’re not an eejit.” Or: “Madness is a no-questions-asked-annulment, isn’t it?”

Of course he couldn’t resist relating the story of what he came home to and it got mangled like Tarry Flynn into a subject that some people have seen fit to go out of their way to come and see the tree ‘she sawed while the poor man was away’.

Forsooth (for it hath soothed me so far this autumn) the tree is still alive and well and is awaiting further pruning once its leaves have fallen in October.

NEWS IN BRIEF:

ainehannah the person will soon be moving to autumn gardener mode and has bought a checked flannel shirt.

The fire brigade and other emergency services have been forewarned.

 

EPILOG:

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