Some Like It Gone

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Over the past several days, I’ve done about 25 hours of back-breaking physical labor in my back yard. Though it was incredibly exhausting, it gave me a lot of time to think, and it ended up reminding me of several important lessons that apply to many other things in life.

A Growing Problem

Everything grows quickly in the hot, sunny, humid Sunshine State — the plants that you want and the bad plants constantly fight for space to multiply. If someone were to stop trimming the bushes and other plants around a typical one-story house, the entire house would probably completely disappear from view inside the lush growth within ten years.

Having neglected my trimming responsibilities for the past 18 months, I found myself faced with three major tasks in my back yard:

  1. Remove a 4-foot tall tree stump.
  2. Trim the overgrown bushes.
  3. Get rid of the air potato vines that grew throughout the bushes.

When I started, I had no idea that any of those jobs was going take as long as it ended up taking, or be as hard to do as it turned out to be.

Lesson 1: Things will always take longer than you think they will take.

Lesson 2: Things will always be harder to do than you think they will.

Smarter Than The Average Stump

I inherited the tree stump when we bought this house three years ago. It was in the southeast corner of the back yard. Obviously, someone had forgotten to tell it that it was dead, because for the past three years, I’ve repeatedly had to cut down multitudes of branches as thick as my thumb that continuously popped out of it and grew 7-10 feet tall. Two years ago, I borrowed an electric chain saw and cut a huge “V” out of that stump, severing it almost all the way through, about a foot above the ground. Even that didn’t stop it from continuing to shoot up scores of new branches. Even worse, those branches always quickly became a haven for hordes of air potato vines (more on them later).

I can hear what you’re thinking: “Why didn’t you just cut down that stump at ground level and be done with it?”

Oh, if it had only been that simple. I couldn’t cut down the stump at ground level because:

  1. Years ago, someone had allowed it to grow through the chain link fence that goes across my back property line. By the time I inherited it, it had already completely engulfed and “swallowed” a section of chain link fence about two feet wide and four feet tall.
  2. It had done the same thing to the entire vertical fence pole that anchored the end of the chain link fence.
  3. Ditto for all of the fence’s bolt-on connectors and the metal stretcher bar that held the end of the chain link material to the metal fence post.

Lesson 3: Take care of small problems before they turn into large problems.

Lesson 4: If you let a small problem turn into a large problem, solve it — don’t leave it for someone else to solve.

What I ended up having to do was:

  1. Cut the entire last five feet of chain link away from the rest of the fence.
  2. Cut away all of the stump’s branches that prevented me from getting anywhere near the stump.
  3. Use a large hammer and a chisel made from a sharpened railroad spike to painstakingly chip away at the stump to reveal parts of the fence post and its hardware.
  4. Use a hacksaw to cut into the fence pole, about a foot from the ground, which was the only place that it was even visible.
  5. Repeat Steps 3-4 as needed for over 90 minutes, in a light rain, while kneeling on the stump’s cut branches and the homes of many angry ants, until the fence post has been cut at least 80% of the way through, and the stretcher bar has been severed. Repeatedly use the hammer and chisel to open up the cut in the fence post when the pressure of the stump causes it to pinch down onto the hacksaw blade.
  6. Wrestle the tree stump back and forth until it finally falls to the ground with a loud groan.
  7. Cut the remaining parts of the chain link material and hardware that still connect the cut part of the stump from the part that’s still in the ground.
  8. Use a two-wheel cart to haul the 200+ pound stump, still clutching the fence post in a death grip, to the curb in the front yard.
  9. Weave a new piece of chain link fence material into the old fence, to replace the part that I had removed.
  10. Drive a new fence post into the ground, carefully avoiding the remaining stump’s roots, making sure that the fence post is not on the neighbor’s property.
  11. Attach the repaired fence to the new fence post in such a way that it goes around the remaining tree stump.
  12. Go back in the house, announce the victory to my spouse, and make her look out the window at the stump, so she’ll praise me for doing such a hard job.
  13. Put away my tools, get out of my soaking wet clothes and shoes, take a cool shower, and spend the rest of the day resting.

One of these days, I’ll have to go back out there and figure out a way to get rid of the rest of that stump.

Lesson 5: A boulder is much harder than a stream of water, but given enough time, a stream of water can eventually wear away a boulder.

Just A Little Off The Sides, Please

After working on the tree stump, my next job was to trim the bushes that grow along the wooden fence on the west side fence of my back yard. Eighteen months ago, those bushes didn’t quite reach the top of the 6-foot-tall fence. This year, they were 12-15 feet tall, and they stuck 5-8 feet out into the yard, making it almost impossible to mow the lawn anywhere near them.

I started by using the same borrowed electric chain saw that I had used on the tree stump two years ago, since most of the branches that I needed to trim were already 2-3 inches thick. After just a few minutes, the chain saw’s electric cable was completely buried under the branches, and I couldn’t move any further. Thus began several hours of alternating between trimming branches and dragging them away to another area of the yard. Eventually, I got to the point where the branches were too small to cut with the chain saw, so I switched to using my loppers. They worked well, but they slowed me way down, since they required me to cut every little branch individually. When I finally finished six hours after I had started, the bushes were almost completely bare from the ground to the top of the fence, but thick and green above the top of the fence. And the pile of branches in my back yard had grown to be 10 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 7 feet tall. I decided to leave it in the back yard for the time being, since it would be several days before the city truck would make its weekly debris pickup and I didn’t want those branches sitting on my front lawn long enough to kill it.

When Monday morning came, I woke up at 7:15 AM, took my vitamins, and immediately went outside to start dragging the pile of branches out to my front lawn so that city’s “claw” truck could take them away. The weather was humid and sunny, but the pile branches and my lawn were still soaking wet from an overnight shower. Within a few minutes, my shoes, socks, shirt, shorts, leather gloves and hair were all soaking wet.

Lesson 6: Unforeseen circumstances beyond your control will almost always turn a hard job into a hard, miserable job.

It quickly became obvious that I needed to find a method that was more efficient at moving branches than simply grabbing one or two and dragging them from my back yard to my front yard. After some experimentation, I discovered that it worked pretty well to drag one or two large branches about ten feet away from the pile, lay them side-by-side and use them as a kind of tarp to pile other branches onto. When I had positioned 5 or 6 other branches onto my homemade tarp, I’d take hold of the trunks of the two large branches on the bottom of the pile. Then, walking backward nine inches at a time, I’d slowly and carefully drag the new mini-pile of branches all the way to the curb in my front yard. Of course, the size of those mini-piles required me to stop and trim some of the bushes on one side of my house, to give me enough room to get through.

Lesson 7: Don’t be surprised if a hard job breeds additional hard jobs of its own.

More than two hours later, I had finally finished moving all of the branches to the curb. They covered 2/3 of my front parkway almost 4-feet deep. Soaked and exhausted, I went into the house to get a drink and check my email. Less than five minutes later, the claw truck drove up. Within ten minutes, the pile of branches was gone.

I went back outside, raked up a few stray branches that had remained, and then mowed the parkway, which completely restored it to its pre-branch-pile look.

Lesson 8: Every once in awhile, things actually do work out the way you planned.

Lesson 9: Even when things work out the way you planned, they often have consequences that you hadn’t planned.

The next day, I mowed the back lawn, which looks a lot bigger than it did last week. It was really easy to mow right up to the trunks of the newly trimmed bushes, but I still got poked in the eye, ear, chest and legs by several branches that had “relaxed” into lower positions after I had removed the branches underneath that had been supporting them.

So I got out my loppers and went back to work, trimming those bushes all over again. Three hours of light rain later, I was soaking wet and completely exhausted again, with a new pile of branches in my back yard about one-third the size of the first pile. It’s still sitting there right now, waiting for me to drag it into the front yard before next Monday’s visit from the claw.

Lesson 10: Like keeping the fingerprints cleaned off of the glass doors at a McDonald’s restaurant, some jobs are never really done.

Some Kinds Are Edible — This Kind Is Poisonous

A couple of summers ago, my wife and I noticed that a bright-green vine had started to sprout all over the chain link fence that goes across the back of our back yard. We didn’t know what it was, but within a week, its large, heart-shaped green leaves were doing a nice job of almost completely hiding the fence. When I trimmed the branches of the neighbor behind’s hedges that stuck through the fence, I carefully cut around the volunteer vines, to keep from damaging them.

After several weeks, I noticed what appeared to be small potatoes growing on those vines, so I did some research and discovered that the pretty vines were actually air potatoes, a perennial vine that Floridians have been trying to eradicate for years. Air potato vines twist themselves around other plants and kill them, both by shading their host plants from the sun and by tightly squeezing them, like hundreds of tiny rubber bands.

Lesson 11: Very bad things often masquerade as very good things.

I discovered that my back neighbor’s bushes were a veritable air potato farm, and that their un-checked vines had not only completely covered my chain link fence, they had also climbed up into all of the thick bushes that started in the back corner and ran the entire length of my side fence. Some of the vines ran along the tops of my bushes for twenty feet or more. At the top of my bushes, the air potato vines were bright green and as thick as my little finger with leaves almost a foot across, while down on the ground, their original stems were thinner than pencil leads and dark brown, to make them almost impossible to spot. In between, they twisted and wound around hundreds of host branches, and had already killed a lot of the underbrush in my bushes. Two of the vines in my bushes began in my back neighbor’s yard, climbed up into my bushes, ran along the top of my bushes for 10-15 feet, and then jumped up into my next-door neighbor’s tree, where they continued for another 15-20 feet. And scattered on the ground throughout my bushes were a few hundred tiny air potatoes, eager to propagate their species even further.

Lesson 12: Whether through ignorance, apathy or incompetence, someone else’s problem will sometimes become your problem.

Lesson 13: Whether through ignorance, apathy or incompetence, your problem will sometimes become someone else’s problem.

I decided to take a 4-step approach to get rid of the air potatoes:

  1. Find each vine’s original stem and pull out its rooted tuber.
  2. Find and pull down all of the vines from the chain link fence and my side bushes.
  3. Spray Roundup through the chain link fence onto as many of the neighbor’s air potato vines as possible.
  4. Find and pick up all of air potatoes sitting on the ground.

Each of those tasks proved to be harder than I had imagined it would be (see Lessons 1 and 2). In hindsight, I should have waited to look for each vine’s original stem until after I had trimmed my side bushes. With the bushes trimmed way back, I wouldn’t have had to spend hours wading through dense foliage, looking for the tiny threads of vine stems.

Lesson 14: The order that you do things is often as important as the things that you do.

Pulling down the vines presented its own special challenge. Though air potato vines can grow to be very thick, they are notoriously brittle, and they’ll easily snap off when pulled, giving you a tiny piece of vine while leaving the rest of the vine in place. What I learned is that if you pull slowly and gradually, without any sudden sharp yanks, it’s possible to pull down 10-20 feet of an air potato vine at a time, even if it’s wound around several host branches.

Lesson 15: When faced with a job that appears to require brute force, a gentle touch often yields better results.

The Neverending Story

I hope that you’ve learned as much from my landscaping adventures as I have. I can hardly wait to start working on the bushes in my front yard.

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