(Today I gardened when I usually write. I think I do better earlier in the day. I wasn’t thrilled to miss writing, but we needed to plant a tree, plus our grandson was at our house. So I gardened. A distraction from writing, yes, but one in which the distraction from work became the work, yielding this essay and another.)
This morning dawned a perfect second week of October sort of day, cool and clear, just right for garden work. Our three-year-old grandson, Adam, was visiting us today and he and his grandmother, my bride, could also help. Today was the day to plant a river birch tree in our front yard. Our city recently offered two free trees to residents. I chose the birch, as a replacement for a dying oak we had removed this year, and a Serviceberry.
We had already dug up a dying dwarf peach tree that was growing near where the birch was to go. Planted by the previous owners not long before we bought the house two years ago, it was still small. An easy job. Today we prepared the bed, enlarging the patch of lawn we disturbed removing the peach. With a spade I dug an outline of the new bed, not too big but large enough for the birch and a few perennials. Then I cut and turned hunks of sod so we could remove the grass. I say grass, but it’s mostly weeds that look lawn-like when mowed. Adam dug dirt, moving shovelsful from here to there. He stuck with it for a long time, content to dig, to pull weeds and grass, and to keep up a sweet and lively stream of chatter. Sometimes he dumped a shovel of soil on the lawn. Sometimes he put a clod of turf, with soil still attached, into the weed basket. I didn’t care. These actions were small and easily “fixed.” Though some garden jobs need the hand of a seasoned gardener, most tasks are well suited for children and give them a chance to interact with nature while they work.
The hole needed to be shallow, just enough for the root ball’s top to touch the surface, but broad. The roots of many trees grow horizontally outward in only the top 12 to 18 inches of soil. At one point during the work, my wife stepped into the house to fix a snack. As soon as she was gone Adam said, “Grandpa, you need sunscreen.” The bottle was sitting right there, since we had already used some on Adam. I sighed. I did not want to deal with it, but I knew I had to do it. And even if I didn’t think I needed to (the morning sun in October is much closer to the horizon than it was in June or July), I wanted to respect his suggestion. He squeezed some onto my hands which I dutifully spread around.
When I had finished preparing the broad hole, 42 inches from side to side, we started the planting process. I placed the tree in the center and spread a few inches of soil and wormy leaf mold all around it. This layer needed watering before I could add the next layer of soil and homemade compost. Here was another job for Adam. Garden water tasks are custom made for children. Water is fun anyway: how nice when water play can also be garden work. Grandma and Adam doused both layers and then gave the tree a drink after I had finished the planting, forming a ring of soil around the trunk (to concentrate water over the newly planted roots), and spreading mulch. The whole job, including snack and sunscreen breaks, took an hour. By then Adam was ready for something different. Thanks, grandma, for taking him to the park and then out to lunch, leaving me alone to finish other garden work.
Thinking about a pair of 63-year-olds and a three-year-old, planting a tree together, I was struck by the juxtaposition of young and old, short-lived and enduring. We completed the task in an hour and could see and appreciate the results: a new bed with a birch tree planted in it. But a river birch lifespan is about 75 years which means I will likely not see it even as a middle-aged tree, yet Adam could see it when he is nearly 80, even older than I am today. Engaging my dear ones in the garden, nurturing and loving both, I can’t help but come into contact with reality simple and complex, terrestrial and cosmic.