Little Big Dig

With glorious weather predicted and my yard needing some late-summer grooming, I head to Lowe’s and buy 25 plants. Gardening, I’ve learned, is about hope, and perseverance, and preparation. I always forget that last part until I stand before the flower bed, eager to plant the new, only to realize I have to begin by destroying the old.

In this case it is a raggedy rose bush whose buds should open into lovely, pink blossoms that instead grow stunted and brown and never unfurl. I spend a good hour digging under the gnarled stump before I give up and rebury it. I’m sure I’ll be doing the same again next year, just as I did the last.

Finally, I begin my original task, recalling where the new plants are supposed to go. As I poke around with a shovel, I discover where the red ants are nesting this summer. The industrious insects ooze like lava defying gravity – up the walls, up the shovel, up my arms. Their venom will make my skin crawl with itchy, fiery pustules for the next two weeks.

As the ants overwhelm me, and my afternoon gardening project faces evening, I start looking for some easy things to complete. I re-stake a row of tomato vines that blew over in a windstorm last night and dig out the grass and weeds in a bed that has grown up and over a brick retaining wall. In the end, I dig out the bricks too. While I work I worry about the red ants.

I dislike pesticides. I don’t like to kill ants with poison because I picture mice and birds and crickets and grasshoppers eating the ants and dying too; and the red ants biting me isn’t the ants’ fault. But I am desperate by now to plant something, so I trot to the garage, get the Triazinon, spread it over the swarming ant mounds, drag out the hose to water down the insecticide, and hope that the poison won’t kill the new bushes I am about to plant. (I know nothing about how pesticides work and if they harm plants. My Chem. E. friend Pam would know, but I’m not about to stop work and rinse off layers of dirt before going into the house, before even one plant is planted, just to find out. I don’t have time to be sensible.)

To my relief, few ants move as I dig holes for the new reddish-green nandina bushes. Once established I can let the plants grow tall and feathery or trim them to grow short and bushy, depending on my mood. Right now, my mood is to be done and never touch the damn plants again. I’m sure I’ll feel different when I see they’ve survived my juvenile gardening skills.

The flower bed beneath the living room window looks pretty ratty. The perennials have enjoyed their heyday, leaving behind straggly green limbs and sun burnt leaves. Real gardeners would plant colorful flowering annuals, but I hate the thought of so much work for such short-lived satisfaction. Instead I dig around the evening primrose and daisy-like fleabane, hoping not to destroy them in the process, while making room for six rudbeckia. Rudbeckia: rud, ruddy, reddish. From the name, I expect red blossoms, but if I didn’t know any better I’d swear this median-strip yellow flower is a Black-Eyed Susan. Regardless of the contradictory name, I plant them.

I drag the hose to the rudbeckia and soak them before deciding that despite the fact sixteen plants still sit in their black plastic pots, I’m too worn out to care. I hose down myself and go inside.

From the second I break out the shovel to start digging holes for my newly purchased, robust flowers, my chest clamps down and starts to hurt, anxious that the plants won’t survive, that I didn’t plant them deep enough, or worse – too deep.

And people say gardening is so relaxing.

While I don’t have an easy relationship with gardening, I am responsible by nature to nature. The western-facing wall of my red brick house gets hot as a pizza oven as soon as the sun hits it, and I am not going to leave those plants to roast. Summer is as Maryland summers always are: sultry, steamy, heavy. You don’t so much breathe the air as snorkel through it, which is why this morning is so remarkable, because this morning is not the usual August sauna. It is New England transplanted: dry, cool, crisp, glorious. A fall day in summer.

The air is chilly enough to surprise me when I step out of the house, tempting me to go back inside for a sweatshirt, but I kind of like feeling chilly. I drink a cup of coffee and walk around the house while determining where to begin Day Two of my one-day project. I decide to start by sweeping the sidewalk near the sunroom, partly because I like to work in a nice, neat area, and partly because I figure I’m just going to dig a few holes between the sunroom and the sidewalk. No fuss, no muss.

After sweeping, I arm myself with scissors and clippers to remove poppy greens, creeping Jenny, a self-planted row of nice-looking weeds. Red ants appear in just one small corner, and I see me whizzing through the project.

When purchasing the mums, I had planned on spreading them around the house, but the ant mounds put the kibosh on that. So there I stood, surrounded by flowers of  rust and purple, marigold, lavender, and sunny yellow. Not an ideal color combination, but now they were all going into the same small bed whether they clashed or not. I set them out in a tight pattern, ignoring the 24-inch spacing the plant tag recommends. Already I’m cutting corners.

The large mums are supposed to go in the back as an anchor, so I dig a hole in one corner of the triangle and set the yellow plant into it. I eyeball the area and plunge the shovel in for hole number two. It sinks in all of half an inch and stops with an elbow shuddering thwang!

When I first moved into my old home I found two cactus plants posted at the ends of the house. Trés feng shui. Except that the original and only other owner was Fred, a little old German I didn’t think was into the esoteric art of Japanese plant placement.

Even if I did believe that these prickly plants keep evil spirits from entering my home, I didn’t like being stabbed as I stepped out my back door, so my first project had been to remove the cacti. As I had carefully shoveled a cactus out of the dirt, I spotted chunks of black plastic sticking up out of the ground. They had a wide molded rim, so I thought maybe Fred had buried a large flower bucket. I’d heard that people do that, plant a plant, bucket and all, for easy removal in the fall if it’s a delicate plant that won’t weather the winter outside. Me personally? Don’t go planting indoor plants outside, because once it’s in the ground it stays in the ground. This, however, looked like a pretty old bucket that hadn’t made its intended last journey.

My neighbors Doug and Sally are friendly folk who come to say a quick hello when I’m outside. Doug especially likes projects and considers my quaint old house cheap entertainment if not easy labor. He’s happy to pick up a shovel and dig out stumps or rocks that resist my attempts. He and Sally have the unique advantage of having been Fred’s neighbor for 13 years before he passed on to the Great Feng Shui Garden in the sky, so when I asked, “What’s with all the black plastic in my backyard?” they were able to tell me that it had once been Fred’s goldfish pond.

When my shovel hits something unyielding this time, I wonder if I’d missed some of the plastic. I shift the shovel to the right, lift, and plunge.

Phwaaang.

Odd, but that is not the sound of metal striking plastic, and despite several attempts it doesn’t budge. Eventually the dirt shifts, and lo and behold I find – something white.

I get serious, move another foot over even though this isn’t where I want a plant, thrust the shovel down, and nearly break both elbows.

I keep uncovering this white, rounded, pipe-like rim in my flower bed. Ah, and rim is the word.

By now I’ve figured to be nearly finished planting; instead I’m still excavating. I trundle heaps of dirt in my little red wheelbarrow across the yard to dump behind my little white shed. On load five or six or nine, I look up to see my project-loving saving grace emerge from his back door, cell phone in one hand, cigarette in the other.

“Doug!”

“What are you up to, girl?”

“I don’t know!”

Doug’s favorite words.

Streaked with sticky brown clay, my wheelbarrow points the way to my hole in the ground.

“What the hell is that?” he asks, picking up the shovel and starting to dig.

Doug is still dressed for work, and boy can that man dress: khaki-colored slacks with perfectly matched socks and expensive saddle-brown loafers, topped with a professionally pressed blue Oxford shirt. Having just come from the barber, he’s perfectly coiffed, his hair gleaming under the bright noonday sun.

I tell him, “Doug, get out of there before your wife comes home and snatches us both bald-headed.”

As dirt sifts into his loafer, he agrees, but this doesn’t stop him for long. He just changes into shorts and boat shoes and returns with a fresh cigarette and a shovel.

While I am still curious to know what is buried in my yard, my interest has waned with my energy. Doug’s fresh energy pulls me back in. He is determined to get to the bottom of this, and I am determined to let him.

He quickly digs down another foot, throwing the dirt on the sidewalk I had so optimistically swept clean hours before, strikes bottom within minutes, and declares victory! He beams his accomplishment, certain the job is nearly done.

He is premature.

More shoveling, more heaps of dirt on the sidewalk, and finally, finally, the entire bottom, the entire rim, are bare, revealing a three-inch diameter hole at one end of . . .

“It’s a bathtub,” Doug announces.

Of course it is.

“I bet that sucker’s cast iron. You know how much it must weigh?” Doug continues to add to my horrified dismay. “I betcha at least 300 pounds. You’d need a tractor and a chain to haul that outta there.”

“I don’t have a chain,” I say, aiming for levity.

“Hell, girl. The chain’s the least of your problems.”

Our humor differs, but our never-say-die attitude is the same.

“I have an idea!” Doug leaps out of the tub and runs across the yard to his house. “I’ll be right back.” He gets into his car and leaves.

I go in the house, get my camera, and take pictures of my very own Little Big Dig, which like the real thing takes many extra years and millions more in taxpayers’ dollars to complete.

Upon Doug’s return, he tells me, “I went up to the local farm. I was hoping John was around with his tractor, but he’s off somewhere.”

With his chain, most likely.

I put down my camera and Doug and I pick up our shovels again. He suggests we fill the hole back up and I just plant around it. Being obstinate, I say it interferes with my planting design, and good naturedly he starts digging again. A good fifteen minutes pass as we dig out the dirt around the outside of the tub, trying to unearth this great treasure.

Doug says, “Wouldn’t it be great if you’d found a skeleton instead of a tub?” Alas, we just keep finding more dirt.

Every now and then one of us stops and examines what we’re doing. Doug asks, “What are you going to do once we get it out?”

I wave an arm across my lawn and say, “Yard art.”

Being both a neatnik and the man who generously mows my lawn, Doug covers his horrified reaction with a hollow laugh.

Since that suggestion doesn’t go over big, I say, “I don’t think it’ll fit in my shed.”

Doug studies the small metal structure, nods, and says as if talking to someone with an ounce of sense, “You know, the dump charges by the pound.”

“Oh god.” I scrub my filthy face with my hands. “That’s why Fred buried this!”

Fred had remodeled his bathroom how many years ago, and rather than haul this three hundred-pound boat anchor to the dump and be charged to have the city bury it when he had plenty of land and could bury it for free, he hauled it to the backyard – albeit only two feet from the house – sank it into the earth, and called it a fish pond.

It’s a guess, but it’s a good guess.

Doug stops and points at the tub, and says wistfully, “A flatbed with a pulley and a chain wrapped through that hole would pull this baby right out of there.”

Yup. That and a band of angels and we’d be all set.

My willfulness and determination can either get an impossible job done or can get in the way of my seeing a job is impossible. Finally I’m too tired to dig anymore, and I say, “I have an idea.”

Doug keeps shoveling.

“Fill the tub back up and I’ll plant around it.”

What a nice man. He doesn’t even give me an “I told you so” look. He just stops shoveling the dirt out and starts shoveling the dirt in.

He stomps and tamps down the dirt as he works, so when I do finally get to dig the originally intended sixteen holes it’s like digging through ancient bedrock.

Since my original planting arrangement has flown out the window like the baby with the bathwater, or in this instance the entire bathtub, I declare to myself, “To hell with the whole plan. Just get the plants in the ground and be done with this whole freaking project.”

Looking at the sky, determining if the clouds overhead hold rain, Doug leaves to mow his lawn.

I go back to digging holes to plug in the mums. I soak them with the hose and fill in around them with dirt now turned to slick mud. It amazes me the accuracy of a garden hose when dropped on the ground, how it lands on its handle and blasts me in the face with water – except today, when it blasts me in the crotch. This only adds to my chirpy mood.

My sneakers slip and slide on the wet tub rim, and I flatten flowers in my efforts to catch myself. By the time I finish hauling the rest of the dirt pile the size of Mt. Rushmore behind the shed and scrape and sweep and hose and scrape some more at the mud left behind from the bathtub burial site, I look as if I’ve fallen several times – and even been buried with the tub at least once, giving personal meaning to pushing up daisies.

Sally, Doug’s wife, has heard about our discovery and comes over to inspect the final results. “These mums look lovely,” she compliments me. I like my neighbor very much.

“So Fred buried a bathtub, huh?”

“He sure did.”

“I wonder if it has claw feet,” she says dreamily.

We say at the same time, “When you dig it up, you let me know.”

After I stow away my implements of destruction, I haul my sore, tired, dinged-up body into the house and let the shower sluice dirt and blood down the drain. I want to fall into bed to die except my friends Jan and Tom have invited me to a dinner of Maryland blue crabs, unaware that I’ve decided to get to their house by way of China.

I bring beer and ginger ale, and cucumbers from my garden. We sit at their kitchen table and I let my friends’ good company put me in a better mood.

Tom says, “Gosh, I love this weather. It’s like getting a September day in August.”

An unexpected drop in the temperature makes poets of us all.

Tom and Jan are master gardeners. Their yard is a maze of soft, mossy paths that wind through hundreds of flowering plants under leafy, oversized trees, through arbors covered with climbing roses and clematis, beside bird baths and bird feeders and blueberry bushes and cutting gardens. It is a thing of extraordinary beauty, the result of winter-long planning and summer-long hard labor. I give them a glimpse of my last two days.

Tom likes Doug’s idea of discovering a bag of bones, suggesting that old Fred’s wife went on a trip and never returned, but he is even more taken with his own idea. “Wouldn’t it be great if instead of a tub you found a great big old strong box – ” his hands indicate at least a foot square        “ – filled with gold coins and jewels and a tiara?!” Who says an engineer can’t think fantastically?

My usual visits with Jan and Tom last hours while we talk and laugh and eat. Tonight, though, I wipe off the orangey-red Old Bay Seasoning from my hands after only three crabs. My fingers are too sore to open more.

Referring to my three-day weekend Jan asks, “Are you going to do any more yard work tomorrow?”

“No.”

Well. Almost no.

The next morning I drive to Lowe’s, load bags of mulch into my car, drive it home, haul the bags to the flower beds, spread the twenty cubic feet of wood chips around the plants, drag the hose out, wet everything in sight, including me, and stand back to survey my domain.

The white tub rim gleams in the bright morning sunlight.

Doug likes things neat. Like our humor he and I differ on what we think looks nice. I see autumn leaves scattered on the grass and think they look like jewels. Doug sees them as targets and mows over them before the wind can catch them and whip them away. He mows the lawn shorter than a Marine buzz cut and shapes his evergreens into well-contained nubbins.

Knowing Doug’s preference, I’m not surprised when he suggests, “Use some mulch to cover that thing up, and no one’ll ever know.”

He may be disappointed, but he probably won’t be surprised when he spots the bathtub rim through the flowers, bleeding streaks of rust.

For me it is a commemorative plaque to Fred’s frugal ingenuity – and to me, a person who always held a belief in the irresistible force, who realizes that perhaps, just perhaps, there is such a thing as the immovable object.

I think of leaving an explanation to the next owner when I sell and move into my condo on the fourteenth floor that holds nary a flower box, but I change my mind. Why spoil the thrill of discovery for the next person? When they go to dig out a bed of tired mums and find the rim of a cast iron bathtub, I hope they wonder, “Do you think it has claw feet?”

© 2012 Jane Harkins. All rights reserved.

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