Getting all spruced up

A couple of times last week in casual conversation, the topic came up. “What did you do last weekend?” I asked friends. “Well, we got the leaves raked and the lawn mowed and cleaned up,” various folks replied.

“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself. “When did winter segue into the season of dreaded yard work?” But just like that, it happened. Somehow during the rain/snow/avalanche/flood time that was coupled with enough hours of above-freezing temperatures, spring and its various weeds got a head start on me. The little seeds that sprout wild mustard and its smelly refrain, the fool’s green of cheat grass, and the winds that blow dry tumbleweeds and cottonwood leaves into flower beds have suddenly created an onslaught of gardening work.

Digging in the dirt can be good therapy, especially when planting things that decorate a yard or make a vegetable garden. It’s even a little therapeutic when removing the invasive weeds that don’t belong in the wild spaces I’m trying to tame. Some chores are unsavory (ridding my tiny lawn of the obstacles the dogs left during the cold months), while others are satisfying (removing dead debris from a clump of daffodils that’s about to erupt in shades of yellow).

The only advance preparation I did was last January, when I cut down the giant fountain grasses. I like to have them around when winter rolls in, because they add some dimension to the death-look of winter, and their tiny seeds feed some of the birds that hang around. No matter the time of year, their feather-like fronds blow and sway in the breezes, looking pretty whether they are green or brown. But I managed to get them scythed down a couple of months ago so that new shoots would rise unimpeded by dead matter when it gets warm enough for them to grow. I raked the harvested long grasses into shocks to feed to the horses, who interestingly didn’t enjoy it as much as their own hay. There is no accounting for taste…

My little yard has a lot of native vegetation: prickly pear cactus, rabbit brush, snake weed and sand sage. These things have no problem surviving from one year to another. But other plants that I love such as roses, lilacs and flowering perennials, struggle in the desert. Yes, I could amend the soil to nurse them along, and add lots of loam and peat and substances that come in 40-pound plastic bags. But I’ve decided not to fight against nature’s tide. I’ve bought my last non-native plants. I’m giving up the fight to encourage things to grow in red, course-sand soil where they yearn for black-earth nutrients that are found in English gardens. For even if those pretty things do take a yen to growing, the wild rabbits will advance and eat most of their tender shoots anyway.

I’ll leave it to the Farmer’s Market and the grocery store to get fresh produce and flowers. Maybe I’ll subscribe to a community garden and get a regular box of goodies every week during the growing season.

Aside from the vegetation in my garden, there are a couple of small patios and a flagstone walkway that I installed more than a dozen years ago. Over the years weeds have sprouted around the stones, even though I annually assault them with Roundup to keep them at bay. This is the year that I need to pull the pavers out one by one, dig out the weeds, and lay the stones down again. It’s a job that poison alone can’t handle; it’s laborious but satisfying.

My muscles feel the fatigue of this spring training. Yard-work training, that is. I can’t make a hula-hoop go around my hips, but I can assault the ground with a hula hoe, cutting off the roots of weeds below the surface of the ground from where they sprouted. It’s crazily reminiscent of vacuuming my house: every place that has foreign objects needs to have a going over.

The hibernation of winter is over. The ground has become dry enough to dig in. Plentiful moisture has encouraged the weeds to grow, but the moist soil releases the roots with ease. This is the rare year when I don’t need to run the hose around to make bulbs bloom. The ground will hopefully be damp until the drip irrigation can get turned on in a few weeks. It’s the perfect time to spruce things up, even though I’m a little behind at the work.

Interestingly, the term to “spruce things up” does not derive from fresh-cut boughs or the clean smell of evergreens. The word spruce comes from Middle English and developed from the now obsolete word pruce, which meant Prussia. People who were “all spruced up” generally wore high-quality leather clothing and other goods from Prussia that were imported and used by early English speakers. “Prussia had a reputation for being very neat and organized. One of its more popular exports was a leather jacket, called a spruce jerkin,” according to a definition I found online. That fashionable item was most likely the reason spruce lost its original meaning of Prussia, and gained its current connotations.

I’ll bet those folks who were all spruced up had nice gardens, too.