Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, November 22, 2020

When Timing Is Everything

I am no expert. I do not have the training to understand what trees need to grow and thrive aside from the basics of sunlight and water. But this coronavirus year of 2020, which has been topsy-turvy in so many ways, has changed the dynamics of the trees in my front and back yard. 

In this case, events worked in my favor.

All in a day's work. There are more leaves on either
side of what you see here. Nov. 21, 2000
(Margo D. Beller)

I've written before of my front yard black locust trees. The ones on my property - planted on the orders of some long-ago functionary on my town's shade tree commission - are all male trees except for one female. The locusts are the first trees to drop their small, yellow leaves and long stems everywhere I walk. These are the leaves that get tracked into the house.

The amount of long, black locust seed pods on the female tree varies from year to year. Some years, when the tree is full of them, a wind storm drops so many pods the lawn turns black in some areas. Raking them is heavy, tiring work but at least it is only one tree. Several houses down the street have double the work.

Some years, especially the year after a bountiful year, fewer pods are produced, as tho' the tree is catching her breath. This turned out to be one such year, as it was for my apple tree and the white oaks' acorns. Most of the pods came down in one strong wind storm, and because they were so close to the curb there was less distance to rake them. What few were left hanging came down the other week after a particularly violent storm, where the squall line was thin and intense, the wind blowing the heavy rain to look like waves on my street. What detritus was washed away.

The apple tree provided few fruits this year, a relief
for me and the house wren that nests in the box
I put there. (Margo D. Beller)
Meanwhile, in the backyard, oak leaves came raining down earlier than usual. We had our first frost in mid-October and had a week of freezing temperatures, followed by a period of warmer than usual temperatures before a hard freeze at month's end. And we had rain. The white oak, ash (what I once thought were elm trees) and maple trees dropped their leaves seeming at once, thickly covering the grass. 

Luckily, MH had plans to do one more mowing and was able to mulch all the leaves. Mulched leaves help the lawn by decomposing and providing nutrients. Mulching leaves also means not having to rake them into loose piles in the street for the town to take away, presuming the November winds don't blow them back.

After the last intense storm - and we have had a number of intense rain and wind storms this season - I realized all the white oak leaves were off the trees. In fact, all the leaves were off all the trees (except for the red oak trees in the next yard; leaves on the lower part of these trees will stay on until spring), including the apple, the pear and the dogwood. The viburnum shrub still had leaves, which turned a deep bronze (so deep I had to look closely to see if the berries were still there; they were). But that was it. Even the walnut tree in the front yard on the border between our property and a neighbor's had dropped all its leaves. Many has been the year when we've finished with the oak leaves, generally the last to fall, only to find the walnut still leafy, giving me more work to remove the thin, red-brown leaves for weeks after.

So aside from sweeping up baskets full of leaves that had accumulated on the back patio and putting them into compost, I had done very little raking this year. That changed yesterday.

First, I went out with my rake to pull leaves away from the house, the areas at the base of the feeder poles, the flood wall, the patch where I have ornamental grasses. Then, as the leaf blowers elsewhere started their racket, I put on my noise-cancelling earmuffs and began my own blowing. Once MH got himself together we started hauling big tarps full of leaves to the street - ultimately, five tarps full. I left the leaves that piled up around shrubs and other plants. These leaves will get raked out and composted in the spring when the growing begins.

It is essential dahlia tubers be completely
dry before they are stored so they don't rot. This
was one of the many chores I did earlier
than I had last year. (Margo D. Beller)

Yes, it was aching work. The raking put a blister on my hand despite protective gloves while the blower's vibrations affected my arms and hands. MH's sore knees made hauling the tarps to the curb slow work for me and at one point I stepped wrong and hurt my ankle. But the job is done - what blows onto the lawn will stay there until the next time MH mows. Soon enough I expect snow to blanket the lawn anyway.

I keep a sort of almanac on old calendars. Today I looked at it. I didn't mark the last day we raked but last year - when I was underemployed until December and we traveled to Maryland and then to NH during November - I handled my winter prep chores in early November. This year, when I've been working at home and have no plans to travel very far for the holidays, I did those same chores on the last day of October, which was a Saturday. Why so early? On that day, I woke up to find the foliage blackened on the cannas and dahlias, and the coleus plants dead. So I composted and stored for winter. Last year I could do these same chores over the course of several weeks, maybe because 2019 was one of the warmest years ever.

Was the roller coaster of freeze followed by warmer than normal temperatures followed by freeze this year why the oak and walnut trees dropped their leaves so early or why were there fewer acorns, apples and locust pods? Was it the long periods of summer dryness after a wet, cool spring? Or were the trees as stressed as we humans are by what is going on around us in this pandemic year? Did climate change play more of a part than usual?

As I said, I'm no expert. I just know what I see. The relief of finishing one of the year's hardest chores is tempered by a vague sense of dread.

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