Grumpy

May contain Rants.

Rooting

A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in yet another epic struggle with tree roots.

A perennial bed that was root-free when first planted (about twelve years ago) had been showing signs of decline for several years. Plants were smaller and obviously struggling, especially the hostas. Turns out hostas don’t compete well in rooty situations; strange, considering at least some species are native to woodlands. Not woodlands of Norway maples, I suppose.

I’m pretty philosophical about the older beds in the back garden. After all, they are close to five large trees, three of them maples (1 red, 2 Norway), whose roots interlace in a network throughout that 50 by 50 foot space. Goodbye, vegetable patch. Tough plants only. But this newer bed, situated in a narrow strip of land between my house and my neighbours’, was, I thought, far enough from any tree to remain root-free. The drip-line (canopy edge) of the closest maple was safely distant, and tree roots don’t extend beyond the drip-line. Or do they?

Yes, they do. Roots roam far and wide, as it turns out. Once I discovered creeping rootiness in that new bed, I started reading up on how tree roots grow. There was surprisingly little written for home gardeners, even those who are familiar with Latin plant names. I found a lot of scientific papers written by researchers in the fields of forestry or agriculture. Their focus was narrow and their terminology over my head.

Finally, I found this — relatively comprehensible and relevant to my situation. Also discouraging. The drip-line idea is one of the fallacies. Au contraire, “it is not uncommon to find trees with root systems having an area with a diameter one, two or more times the height of the tree.”

tree-309046__340

This isn’t how it works! (Image from Pixabay)

Trees send out long, questing roots that keep on growing as long as there’s a reward in the form of water or nutrients, as in a fed and watered perennial bed. The roots run along horizontally, sending up vertical subsidiary roots ending in fine mats of feeding roots. Those are the ones that make that typical ripping sound when a spade is thrust into the soil.

So I tried a strategic strike. I dug up a clump of purple monkshoods (Aconitum napellus) and a few young hellebores at the end of the bed closest to the tree I suspected to be responsible for the root. Then I excavated down two feet and indeed found not one, not two, but three roots a couple of inches apart, each of them about two inches in diameter. Using a nifty little saw (actually intended for cutting wallboard) and a hatchet, I removed sections of these roots, one to three feet in length. Then I dumped in some compost and replanted the aconites and other plants. Thanks to cool and rainy weather, they recovered nicely.
I hope this will give the perennials in the beleaguered bed a chance, if only for a season or two. I don’t relish the thought of a full-bore rebuilding of the entire bed in the grand manner. This rather limited effort was enough for an aging gardener.
October 20, 2011

Hostas, autumn of 2012.

Missing the “B”

Have a close look at these two images and see if you can spot a significant difference between them.

The Nexus corrected

Image #1

 

The Nexus

Image #2

OK, the title and the author’s name are a lighter colour in #1, but that isn’t it. No, it’s the typo in the subtitle. “A portal to the Herert West Series.” A typo on a cover image! A cover image designed by the author herself, i.e., moi.

AAARGH!

I published this short story in September — six whole months ago — and didn’t notice that error until last night, when I ran across the cover image on some website. I was admiring how all the elements worked together, when I saw it. “Herert,” not “Herbert.” I messed up the name of the main character of my series. How bad is that?

I’ve seen typos on other authors’ cover images or in their book listings, with a mixture of pity and contempt. “Look how that poor schmuck screwed up! Haste makes waste. Ha, ha!”

OK, it could have been worse; at least the typo isn’t in the actual title or the author’s name. And the font I used for the subtitle is called Sacramento, described as “a monoline, semi-connected script.” It’s pretty, but barely legible in thumbnails and other small images. At least I spelled everything correctly in the book’s listings in ebook stores. Maybe most people don’t bother to enlarge cover images and scrutinize them.

I have, of course, corrected the error and uploaded the corrected image to the relevant sites. But it takes a while for a change to trickle through the internet, and quite a few copies were downloaded before I found the mistake. Which means the flawed image is still out there, waiting to be noticed.

I did manage to find a couple of positives in this irritating little situation:

First, it’s a reminder to pay attention. Always double, triple and quadruple check the spelling of titles, subtitles, author names and any other text that appears on a cover. Whether it was designed by you, a friend or a professional designer — before you approve it, check, check, check!

Second, those error-bearing covers may become valuable rarities sought by collectors, sort of like postage stamps with a monarch’s head printed upside down. “Ah yes, the rare ‘Herert’ edition. Very few exist.” Well, maybe if I become posthumously famous. You never know.

Fruit Stickers are Forever

I hate those little plastic stickers applied to individual fruits for inventory and retail purposes.

Why? Because they last forever, like all plastics. Even after years of being moved from the compost heap to the garden, being raked up with fallen leaves or other debris, put back in the compost, redistributed to the garden, there they are, good as new, winking up at me from the soil. I found one today while in the throes of digging up the Meconopsis bed (more about that in a future post). It had to be several years old, but if I had rinsed off the dirt, it would have been pristine.

Old sticker found while digging.

Old sticker found while digging.

Continuing to put them in the heap would lead to an ever-increasing accumulation. Once I realized this, I banned stickers from the compost pail in the kitchen. Of course, it’s only the fruits whose peels are removed before eating that contribute to this problem — bananas, oranges, melons and avocados. Peeling stickers off apples, oranges and bananas is easy, even when there are multiple stickers on one wretched banana — even organic ones, which is especially offensive. Tomatoes, nectarines and other fruits with delicate skins are not so easy to de-sticker, although the fuzz on peaches seems to prevent them from sticking as well, which means they’re easier to peel. (Another point in favour of eating peaches in season).

Peach with sticker

Once peeled, the stickers present another problem — how to dispose of them? I used to put them in the garbage, but reasoned that since I lug my soft plastics to a recycling depot (and pay a small fee to deposit them), it made sense to include the pesky stickers. So now I stick them together in clumps and put them in the soft plastics bag. Or stick them to other things in said bag. Given the small size of these little nuisances, they may very well end up in a waterway or the ocean, contributing to the problems created by micro-plastics. Melting them down and turning them into something else is the only sensible solution.

There are ways to avoid the damn things. Grow your own fruit, or buy exclusively from farmers’ markets. Trouble is, there aren’t too many banana and orange farmers in Canada. I understand there are people who collect fruit stickers, sort of like stamp collectors collect stamps. Or others who use them as little blobs of colour to create art. If you can believe this. But even those folks must have hit the “No more stickers, please!” point by now.

I’m not the only gardener/consumer to be annoyed by fruit stickers. A thorough discussion may be found here. I’m just surprised a biodegradable alternative hasn’t been found yet. Even fast food chains have almost eliminated plastic from their products. Fruit is supposed to be healthier than hamburgers and french fries, so why can’t fruit producers get their act together?

The New Gatekeepers

I guess it had to happen. Technology opened the gate to all those writers who couldn’t get published the traditional way. Huzzah! But there are so many of us, cranking out books by the millions, that readers are overwhelmed. Most indie-published books join the blur and go unnoticed.

Except maybe the ones that get lots of reviews. Trouble is, it’s hard to get reviews, or at least the right kinds of reviews. No friends or family members. No “I’ll review yours if you review mine” arrangements. Brief comments by readers are fine; but thoughtful, thorough reviews by “official” reviewers are best of all — and almost impossible to get. Reviewers are the new gatekeepers. (As are a few advertisers, notably BookBub, which is pretty selective about which books it will promote. You need to pay them a non-trivial sum — but first you need a non-trivial number of good reviews).

You don’t have to look hard to find lists of rules and other admonishments directed at hopeful review-seeking authors. They look a lot like the submission guidelines and how-to-approach-publishers advice of the trad pub years. Some of these lists are lengthy and detailed, and a few verge on the offensive. Reading them conjures up a caricature of a desperate author approaching the enthroned reviewer, crawling on hands and knees while pushing a copy of their book along the floor with their nose. (And if your book is taken up by the reviewer, don’t even think about emailing to ask when the review might appear. Just. Don’t. Do it. Ever).

This is part of a bigger phenomenon associated with the self-pub revolution — the author as pest. It seems we’re a pretty annoying bunch: spewing out books full of typos and grammar no-nos, issuing endless “Check out my book!” tweets, approaching acquaintances with book in hand and big salesman’s grin on face, and bothering beleaguered book bloggers just like we did the beleaguered acquisitions editors of days gone by. (Remember all those tales of mail rooms crammed with unsolicited mss?) Maybe creativity generates a ferocious hunger for attention that overrides good manners. Book bloggers and reviewers have reacted predictably to the deluge of review requests by hedging themselves about with rules, just like publishers did.

But hey — at least now we writers are free to throw our books into the public arena. That’s way better than slinking back to our writing rooms to entomb the rejected manuscript in a cardboard box that once held dog food. The toughest gate has been breached. So what if there’s no sure-fire path to success? (There never was, actually). And a few of us have managed to get our books noticed, clearing the gates like so many hurdlers.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Advertising, Hypocrisy and Other Offenses

I just finished processing today’s load of solicitations for funds masquerading as personal letters, full of smarmy sentences such as, “We know you’re passionate about [their cause] and want to be a part of making the world a better place,” followed by several more paragraphs of similar verbiage and a separate sheet with suggested dollar amounts to donate. Then there are the employees of call centres who, after interrupting your supper, writing or blog-reading session, inevitably start off their spiel by asking, “How are you?” As if they care.

This kind of hypocrisy is extremely irritating — dressing up appeals for funds to make them look like friendly, personal attempts to reach out and befriend. While I’m scribbling out my name and address on the paper junk mail before chucking it in the recycle bin, I can’t help but recall the advice I’ve read in countless blog posts about how authors should present themselves on the internet. Never say, “Buy my book.” Not even, “Please buy my book.” Don’t be annoying — instead, create content readers find so fascinating, they will rush to seek out your books without any appeals from you.

Isn’t this a kind of hypocrisy, though? Let’s face it — most of us indie authors started blogging for one reason:  to create an “author platform” from which we could launch our book marketing strategies. After a while some of us figure out that almost all the folks who follow and read our blogs are other authors, and selling books to them works about as well as selling sand to desert dwellers. By that time we may also have found other reasons for blogging — making connections with fellow authors, creating a body of writing in the form of our blog posts, and so on. But in the background is the refrain, even if faint, “Look at my books, check out my books, please buy my books.” Otherwise, why do we display our books’ cover images in our sidebars, complete with links to where they can be bought?

I admit it — I hate advertising of all kinds. That’s one reason I kissed television goodbye decades ago. I’m an expert at avoiding click-bait on websites, and if the first or second thing I see on a website or blog (yes, even fellow writers’ blogs) is a pop-up plea to sign up for a newsletter, I’m gone. When it comes to advertising my own books, I put myself in the place of the recipient of such appeals and imagine them doing what I do when I recognize a sales pitch.

Writing — creating good quality prose or poetry — is a demanding art, with perfection always receding into the distance. Some writers manage to turn themselves into marketers as well. Good for them. I don’t happen to have a natural inclination for that aspect of the book business, so am walking the indie author path in my own fashion.

 

Rose coloured specs

 

R.I.P. One Computer

Sadly, my 6-year-old HP Pavilion laptop, which has been a reliable and helpful tool, has bitten the dust. A black screen, and single flashes from lights near the Caps Lock and Num Lock keys meant CPU failure. I’m writing this post on a borrowed computer.

On Monday I’ll get acquainted with the new machine, and (of course) Windows 10. Why Monday? Because part of the setup process will be data recovery from the corpse.

One lesson learned:  back everything up. Even though I have copies of my really important documents in “the cloud,” a whole lot of stuff that didn’t seem all that important (but is) exists only on the now inaccessible hard drive. Hopefully recoverable.

So get an external hard drive, set up a cloud account, and do regular backups. Especially when your machine is getting on — 3 years and older, I would think.

So Long, Sucker! But There’s (Another) One Born Every Minute.

My garden is full of them. Suckering shrubs — Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium), Snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus), and common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) — the last now in glorious bloom. There’s a suckering tree as well — the dreaded Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), known around here as the Tree from Hell.

Common lilac in bloom

Common lilac in bloom

The standard advice for dealing with suckers is to trace each one back to its point of origin on the parent shrub and tear, not cut it off. Tearing has a lasting effect, apparently (similar to plucking rather than shaving unwanted hair). Remove soil if necessary to accomplish this, the advice says, helpfully. Well, that’s fine if the shrub and its suckers live in solitary splendour with nothing around them except grass, possibly, but what do you do when the shrub is surrounded by perennials, bulbs, groundcovers, and even other shrubs? “Removing soil,” otherwise known as digging, isn’t really an option in a densely-planted mixed border, especially if a multitude of suckers has popped up several feet away from the parent plant.

The best advice is don’t plant sucker-prone shrubs to start with, no matter what other qualities they possess. So what if they’re native plants? Both Mahonia aquifolium and Symphoricarpus albus are native to my region, adapted to local conditions and trouble-free. They settled in happily here, sending up shoots with enthusiasm over the years. If I had several acres at my disposal and wanted a natural garden that could be left to its own devices, these plants would be great, but on a 50 x 120 foot lot (that also accommodates a house, garage, driveway and paved walks), planting these and other suckering shrubs guarantees either a wilderness effect or a gardener ready to nuke everything with herbicides and start over again. (I wish I could go back in time and give my younger self this lecture).

So — with the “nuclear” option not practicable, and not being ready to move to another patch of land, what do I do about suckers (besides curse and wail)?

In theory, it would be good to create a cordon sanitaire around sucker-prone shrubs, clearly defining a no-go area for each one. No suckers beyond this point! This would be done with a sharp spade, plunged into the ground all around the offending shrubs, at a distance of several feet. The process would have to be repeated at least twice a year, similar to edging a bed or border. Given the brutality and intensity of the work, there could be no plants of value growing in this foot-wide space. But setting a border makes the situation seem less chaotic and limits the space in which sucker removal is absolutely necessary.

Any suckers detected outside the cordon sanitaire would (in theory, at least) be removed immediately using minimally invasive techniques. First, the good old yank-by-hand method. Sometimes it works. More often than not, the sucker snaps at ground level, leaving a stump that’s hard to hold on to. Or the bark strips off, resulting in a little whip that’s too slippery to yank. A tool is then needed. For small young suckers, a dandelion tool works. Thrust it parallel to the sucker until it cuts and the sucker releases. (But remember, cutting isn’t as effective as ripping). For older, thicker suckers, a small, cheap, pointed saw of a type designed to cut gyprock (sheetrock) works fairly well. Like the cutting-with-spade procedure, this search and destroy operation is best repeated at least twice a year. Three or four times is better, especially in regions with mild winters. Constant vigilance is best.

I have a fleeting hope that if I follow these processes diligently, the shrub will get the message, “None of your suckers will live to see the light of day!” and stop sending out the roots from which suckers grow. But somehow I doubt that will be the case.

A forest of Oregon Grape suckers

A forest of Oregon Grape suckers

In reality, the years have a way of slipping by, and the gardener is not as diligent as necessary. In my garden, it’s too late for the cordon sanitaire. Roots of Oregon grape and snowberry have spread far and wide. For the past several days I’ve been engaged in an epic struggle with an enormous Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium). I removed three large stems (diameter 2-4 inches at the base) and reduced the remaining plant’s height from about 12 feet to 8. Worst of all was pulling, digging or cutting (sometimes all three) a multitude of suckers, ranging in size from less than a foot tall and 1/4 inch in diameter to 4 feet and 1 inch diameter.

Oregon Grape prunings (right) and suckers (distant left)

 

Typical Oregon Grape suckers

Typical Oregon Grape suckers

 

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The "after" picture

The “after” picture: remaining Oregon Grape visible behind the Ceanothus

I cherish no illusions that the suckers are really gone. Their stubs and deeply buried roots are still there. They will no doubt rise again, like a bunch of prickly green zombies. Really, the best way to avoid suckers is not to plant suckering shrubs. And if any plant shows suckering tendencies, rip it out.

This lone orange tulip has been blooming for weeks -- and doesn't sucker!

This lone orange tulip has been blooming for weeks — and doesn’t sucker!