Sticky, Icky Messes are We
Looking out the window yesterday, it struck me that the grapevines were holding the plum tree in an overwhelming embrace, one that would become a chokehold if it were allowed to continue. Every summer the grapevines meander, searching for whatever they can find for support. And every year they end up snuggling their curls and tendrils into the upright fingers of the plum tree’s sucker shoots, leaving it helpless to defend itself.
In this tangle of lush green leaves full of moving vital sap, the aphids party. Not only do they party, drunk from the goodness of the soil and sun, but then they decide to take things one step further and breed like crazy. The leaves on the plum tree had begun to wilt and curl like mad, most noticeably on the leaves of the sucker shoots. The shoots are unwanted new growth which pulls the energy away from the tree and fruit by sending leaves far off into the sky. It was apparent something had to be done right away.
I started with trimming the vines on the far side by the blueberry bushes. We are lazy urban farmers and just let the vines go*, enjoying the riot of green and the chaos of it all until it’s time to start chopping. And chop I did. Starting at the ends of the vines, I found which ones were bearing nascent fruit and which weren’t. Much of this had to be done in sections, and without pity. It’s only a matter of time before vines left a bit longer end up all over the neighbor’s apple tree and in the chokecherry hedge which divides our properties, so I’ve become pretty heartless over the years as I do this.
In a few moments, the blueberries were uncovered and I began to pull huge handfuls of grass from beneath the bushes to clear them. Full of dusty pale-green berries, the bushes beckoned the Kiddo over and he picked a few in an explorative manner. As we don’t yet have a sandbox or dirt patch in the backyard, Kiddo was finding some interesting and fantastic ways to entertain himself while I worked, and picking green fruit seemed to be enough to occupy him. This seemed like a good time to explain why we didn’t pick green fruit: that it hurts our tummies because it’s not ripe. “Blueberry have a tummyache” he said to me. “Yes, so let’s wait for it to get blue and ripe. We can eat the blueberries in the freezer.” This seemed to satisfy him for a while, and when I accidently trimmed off a small cluster of grapes, like shiny little jade beads on a cool celadon stem, it was handed to him for further examination.
After twenty minutes or so, I’d worked my way over to the mess of tree-tangled vines. In between times, I’d been surprised, horrified and relieved all at once to discover two arum plants hiding beneath the tall grass, their stalks full to bursting of green seeds. They are beautiful plants, but incredibly invasive and toxic to boot. I’ve put in more hours than I care to remember digging these little indestructible bulbs out of various parts of the backyard, so I was grateful to find these before the seeds reddened and hardened, sowing themselves into more heartache for me.
Feeling like we’d dodged a bullet, it was now time to grit my teeth and set in. I pulled on the first vine and the leaves of the plum tree shook, showering me with aphids and their little sticky, downy nests. Several more such showers later and I now had enough tree exposed that I could begin pruning the excess growth down to the old wood.
I don’t mind telling you that this is the most disgusting thing I do all year, guaranteed.
Opening up the tree, I could see the fruit hiding amongst the leaves. We lost about five tiny plums to the aphids and the way they were so incredibly leathery and desiccated was disturbing. It’s just one example of how destructive aphids are. Which is another reason this work takes the time it does: I’m on the lookout for ladybugs, their larvae and their yellow clusters of eggs. As I clipped off each shoot, I also trimmed off leaves that sported any stage of ladybug life, saving them from being hauled off with the yard debris. Once I’d filled up two giant yard debris bags, I left the rest of the branches on the ground to induce the ladybugs to stay and eat a while.
As I continued clipping, the showers of bugs continued. When you clip plants that are host to aphids, keep your head down. Literally. Or they will get in your eyes and mouth and nose as well as your hair. If they could find a way to collect this stuff, beauticians could hold a hairstyle forever, it’s so densely sticky. I felt like a piece of human double-sided tape: everything was sticking to me. Kiddo joined me under the tree and was soon covered. I knew he wasn’t going to like the hair washing that would come afterward, but that would be better than a morning of “you go away now”, which was the only other alternative. Occasionally, when he began picking green fruit from the tree, I would chase him off, entreating him to “go play with your sticks and rocks, honey”; otherwise, he spent most of the time hanging around, poking sticks through the plastic holes of the black temporary fencing and turning into just as much of a gooey mess as I was.
I won’t tell you about the bathtime, the tears and the very late (bad mom!) lunch, or that I let him watch his favorite concert dvd for nearly an hour because we were both so tired. And I don’t want to think about our clothes, which are patiently waiting on the back porch for a bucket of OxyClean. What I will tell you is that, when I look out the window, I can see my grapes and plums in the light at last, waiting for the sun.
*Just a note- our method of growing grapevines is not recommended for those of you who are seriously growing for either table or wine grapes. We are not serious growers.