Earthworms’ Castings

with Jean Ponzi

Good-Bye to an old Friend No Longer Hangin’ Around

We worked together in the same place for nearly twenty years. Our interactions drew me gratefully out of doors, in every kind of weather, as we conserved energy (mine and the planet’s) in simple, elegant, low-tech calm. Now this quiet, helpful old partner – and its home among the trees – is cut down and gone.

Or at least rolled up for a while.

I’m eulogizing my backyard clothesline – and the three trees who served as its natural poles.

Two-thirds of this tidy trio were big ole’ “weed” trees. Ailanthus altissima, is also called Tree-of-Heaven or stinkweed, for reasons clear when you break a branch. Boxelder, or Acer negundo, is a riverine cousin in the Maple family. Neither of these species is very desirable in the urban landscape, where massive annual seedling crops maintain their weedy reputation.

Boxelder is native to Missouri, and an asset along stream banks where it has a stabilizing influence. In cities, its weak wood becomes a hazard easily. Ailanthus is native to China, where its reputation is rather exalted. It was hailed here as a great new choice of fast-growing street tree in the 19th century, until gardeners dealing with not so heavenly colonies of backyard offspring cursed its suckering habits and funky odor. Both of these trees can “reforest” disturbed areas – like city lots. Ailanthus especially quickly crowds out any native neighbors.

My clothesline Ailanthus had a big iron hook embedded in its trunk, a natural rope starting point. A head-high crotch in the Boxelder’s trunk and a knobby branch stump on an old Jack Pine, which had died of natural causes a few years back, completed a perfect three-point solar-drying array.

All these features were at about the same height, just right to hold a rope. I had to stretch a little bit to reach it. The trees were close enough to hold taut a line pinned full of flapping laundry, and separated far enough for two loads of drying length.
With almost no human-made elements, this was perfect Green Infrastructure in our park-like city yard: functional and unobtrusive. It disappeared completely when I simply took the rope down.

Now the trees themselves are down, cut and mulched in our effort to curb invasive species. And because the Boxelder had been dropping whopping branches in nearly every windy storm. I’m not fond of paying tree-removal fees, but this was a sensible bit of urban forest maintenance.

Removing invasive or problem trees makes room for native species to flourish.

I know just what I want to plant back there: Tilia Americana, the American Linden, also called Basswood. I fell in love with Lindens working for a decade in mid-town St. Louis, where they stand, shady sentinels, as an exceptionally lovely and durable choice of street trees. When the Linden flowers in May or June, its tiny tart-scented blossoms explain another common name, the Lime Tree.

I’m not really partial to change, especially where my daily habits are concerned. I stewed and fumed about this chainsaw whack to my beloved alternative to the fossil-fuel dryer. But I agreed with the broader plant management decision. We were swapping one Green option for another.

Can I refresh my washday happiness with metal poles implanted elsewhere in our landscape? They will not be 100% natural… but they could make good homes for some native vines.

Join Jean Ponzi for enviro-conversations Monday evenings, 7-8 p.m., on “Earthworms” on FM-88 KDHX, and on Sundays, 1-2 p.m. for “Growing Green St. Louis” on the Big 550 KTRS-AM.