JOURNAL: A Garden of Subtraction

This is another of Ian Spomer’s cellphone panoramas. Click on the image, then enlarge. Move left to right, and imagine yourself in the middle. Three years ago, this was a big thicket.

Why is there a rotting Datsun in the garden? Its Burroughs‘ car.

Apart from a 1947 incident in south Texas when Burroughs and his wife, Joan Vollmer, were issued a pubic indecency citation for having sex in their car on the side of the road, driving doesn’t figure much in the Burroughs record. But not long after Burroughs bought this property in 1981, he decided he wanted to drive again. He was in his late 60s then, with a pronounced shoulder hump. The cramped Datsuns of the time, then a no-frills economy car, suited his posture. The license was obtained, the car purchased, and Burroughs drove around Lawrence. His friends say he could barely see above the steering wheel.

After a respectful while, a year or so, a Meeting of the Handlers was convened. It was agreed that William was a frightening driver. Burroughs was approached and, being a wise old cat, he surrendered the keys. The Datsun was drained out, pushed into the back yard and, legend has it, the keys thrown into the creek bordering the property, now Burroughs Creek, nearly 30 years ago.

The past two winters, raccoon families have nested in the Datsun’s back seat. Lichen is gaining ground on the car’s surface, a kind of lichen that thrives on auto paint and rusting metal.

This pathway was carved out in 2010, originally two feet wide. A coppiced Catalpa is on the left, turning chartreuse before retiring for winter. Photo: Ian Spomer

Alley looking east. Photo: Ian Spomer

Many of the saplings you see in the above two pictures will be removed this month. In 2009, the alley above was barely three feet wide. Over 200 trees have been cleared since then, mostly elm, walnut, hackberry and silver maple. The wild blackberries on the left–tart, tiny fruit that the birds always get first–are tedious to remove, as is the honeysuckle. But every gardener knows that endurance is insurance. Photo: Ian Spomer

Lonicera maackii, fall berries and foliage. Photo: Ian Spomer

Lonicera maackii berries. Birds eat them last. Photo: Ian Spomer

I’m ambivalent about Lonicera maackii. I curse it frequently, yet can’t deny an appreciation for it’s flowers, fruit and amenability to pruning. Its a case of making lemonade from lemons, as it is with many invasive plants. Make an asset of over-abundance, teach the plant to suit your design. Isn’t that the essence of cultivation? I think L. maackii is beautiful, requiring much less attention than most roses and much easier to pull when unwanted.

The yard that abuts the Burroughs property belongs to the neighbor two doors south. He has an L-shaped lot which crosses the creek and connects to Burroughs’ deep back yard. Photo: Ian Spomer

Looking east to the garage garden. Photo: Ian Spomer

That glorious yellow-orange foliage on the tree at right belongs to Koelreuteria paniculata, the Golden Rain tree, which borders on invasiveness in Kansas. I pull at least a hundred K.p. seedlings per season and you see this tree barging all over town.

Koelreuteria paniculata is a four-season plant with bipinnate leaves. Spring growth is bronze and pink, followed in summer by foot-long panicles of tiny, orchid-like yellow flowers that shed after three weeks to cover the ground with a “golden rain.” The flowers are followed by inflated, russet seed pods looking very much like pods of Physalis alkekengi built large. After a brilliant foliage display in autumn, the bare winter trunks would figure well in a Tim Burton movie.

Dead center, the black, contorted trunk, is Catalpa speciosa, the Northern Catalpa. Photo: Ian Spomer.

Catalpa speciosa is another somewhat invasive tree in Kansas. It’s twisted branches, so beautiful in silhouette, are brittle and easily snapped in strong winds. It coppices well, making a four-foot-tall shrub with fuzzy, foot-wide leaves.

Gardening here is essentially woodlot management, a process of considered subtraction. I have removed far more plants than I have put in, and I have the brush piles to prove it. I leave the smaller brush piles in the less-visited areas areas of the garden to be engulfed in Clematis terniflora and provide habitat for wildlife. A pair of red foxes made their home in a honeysuckle thicket last Spring.

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