Rooted

Fleabane on the move: easy digging in the arena.

One of the side effects of abundant solitary time is an inclination toward idiosyncratic projects. If my husband were not spending his weekdays provisioning Coloradoans with wine, he might kindly suggest that I stick with tasks that are either of manageable scope or practical advantage. As it is, some of the chores I come up with are distinctly oddball.

Superficially, my latest project is simple: plant the area around the hayshed, where the construction of an addition last summer left an L-shaped patch of torn-up ground. The reality is more involved. Planting required better dirt, but luckily I had some of that, native topsoil scraped aside years ago when the original hayshed was built. I spread that last fall, and then scattered leftover grass and wildflower seeds of unknown age and questionable viability before mulching the area with woodchips.

My plan this spring was to speed the greening with grass and wildflower plants taken from the small dressage arena west of the barn. I haven’t been riding as much as I would like the last few summers, and the easily pocked sand offers an inviting bed for seeds from the surrounding grassy areas. I have plants growing where I don’t want them, and an area without plants that needs some: two problems, one solution.

A few weeks ago, then, when a stretch of rainy days appeared in the weather forecast promising to spare me the chore of watering-in, I started transplanting. Out on the arena, I’d scoop under a plant with a quick step on the spade, releasing the roots from the sandy footing. Once I had six or eight plants in a bucket, I’d head over to the hayshed, find a spot for a plant, spade a new niche, and snug roots into dark topsoil with a few tamps of my toe.

I’ve salvaged—or recycled, depending on your point of view—bunches and stems and rosettes and mats. I’ve moved grasses—fescue, mountain muhly, blue grama—and wildflowers—groundsel, fleabane, yarrow, curlycup gumweed, western wallflower, purple aster, cut-leaved evening primrose, and a couple of varieties of penstemon.

Growing on the arena, where they’re not wanted, these plants are technically weeds. Moving them restores them to their rightful status as desirable native plants.

Shuttling back and forth in front of the barn with my spade and bucket, levering at sand and chopping at rocky dirt, gives me time for such heady thoughts, which is probably why I so often concoct repetitive and mindless chores like this one. As I uproot and replant, I think: that the plants are doomed if they stay on the arena, where they’d get crushed by hooves or raked out with the harrow; that I can’t move every plant, and every plant I move isn’t going to survive—but their chances are still better in their new location. My good intention inflicts a major disturbance, but these native plants are adapted to withstand hardship. They’re accustomed to intense solar radiation and bitter cold, tolerant of dry spells and pounding thunderstorms. They’re resilient in the thrashing of high-altitude wind, whether it’s accompanied by snow or hail or blow-drying heat. These plants withstand grazing by cattle and horses; browsing by deer and elk; nibbling by voles, gophers, chipmunks, mice, and ground squirrels.

And they do all this from anchorage in ground that is, in some places, more rock than soil. Out of sight, roots are out of mind, unless you’re trying to pull or dig. Having done both with some of these species in the past—this isn’t the first time native plants have asserted their adaptability in a location inconvenient to me—I was aware of those root systems, albeit not in such vivid detail as I am now.

Ironically, my appreciation for their rootedness has been enhanced by the ease of uprooting the plants. The loose footing of the arena has spared me the usual hacking and grunting and colorful language and hurling of plum-sized rocks that jar my joints like boulders. These plants are quite young, which certainly helps, but digging in sand is practically serene, opening me to details that would be lost to gasping effort if I were digging in actual soil, rocky or otherwise. The roots also emerge intact, so I’ve been able to admire the thick, noodly roots of the penstemon starts and contemplate whether taproots are best described as “pale carrots” or “gnarly pegs.” The runners of the yarrow and cut-leafed evening primrose zigzag like subterranean lightning. The rootballs of bunchgrasses reveal iceberg proportions, with their topsides dwarfed by subsurface mass.

I’ve always known, in a theoretical sort of way, that our native plants rely on extensive root systems. I’ll remain in love with lacy stems and artful leaf forms, with the fountaining sprays of grasses setting seed, with the sparks of yellow and purple and orange across the landscape as blossoms flare. But now I’ll think more often of the fabric weaving itself beneath the horizon of the soil’s surface, where color is irrelevant and form is not fancy.

With luck and some moisture, this transplanted penstemon should put on a purple display later this summer.

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