Posted in Room and Board

The Behavioral Science of Snow Removal

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It occurs to me that those living closer to the equator may not have the luxury of appraising neighbors on methods of snow removal.  By closer I mean closer than one of the northern-most United States of America.  Mention you are from Minnesota, and people immediately conjure images of wolf-like dogs racing across an open tundra, a parka-clad rider mushing them on in search of the next meal of blubber.

Yeah, it’s something like that.  Only I’m in my Dodge Neon, the dog has positioned herself on the center console looking out over the dashboard, and I’m on my way to the supermarket.  Sure it’s cold, and there’s snow on the roads.  It’s Minnesota.  It’s winter.  Get over it.  The minute a flake falls from the sky, everyone wants to know what the roads are like.  My answer?  “Eh . . it’s winter.”

And with the season comes the practiced art of snow removal.  Minnesotans have been removing snow for centuries.  Technically, the snow is not removed.  You can’t remove snow unless you bring it inside, melt it and flush it down the drain.  No, we move it.  From here to there.  Sometimes, we have so much snow to move that we scoop it up in front loaders, empty it into dump trucks and haul it away.  I’m not sure where they go with it, but if it were me I’d haul it to California.

While snow in the city comes with parking bans, tow trucks and impound fees, in the suburbs it’s all about what your neighbor is doing.  Why should winter be different than any other season?  As soon as the lawn is covered, and they can no longer judge the green of your grass, they will begin to analyze the white of your driveway.

Technically speaking, if one does not remove the snow from one’s driveway, the snow will eventually remove itself.  However, if your intention is to leave the snow until it melts in the spring, after driving over it and the fluctuations in temperature, you’re going to end up axle-deep in frozen ruts going nowhere fast.  I think all Minnesotans can agree that some amount of snow movement is necessary.

You have several options, offering various stages of effort and cost.  You can buy a shovel or hire a kid to shovel you out.  You can buy a snowblower, or hope a neighbor brings one over.  Some people put a plow on the front of their truck and not only plow out their place, but make money plowing out others.  My dad used to take out his four-wheel drive with the plow on the front and drive around looking for little old ladies shoveling their own driveway or families stuck in the ditch.  His pay was the smile on their face.

Once suburbanites have chosen our option of snow removal, we are obligated to assess our neighbors’ methods and motivation.  It is safe to say that a homeowner can be accurately labeled by the driveway he keeps.

  • The Gambler:  This guy checks the forecast first.  He may leave up to three inches lay if he thinks it will melt by 2 p.m. tomorrow.  If the stuff is still falling, he gauges the weight per shovelful, duration of snowfall, and rate of accumulation before making his plan of attack.
  • The Sloth:  This one owns a snowblower, but will wait to see if it melts first.  He is often seen three days later carelessly snow-blowing ice chunks toward windows and small children.
  • The OCD:  He is out there with his shovel as soon as a dusting appears.  Unfortunately, as soon as he finishes the bottom of the driveway, the top is already accumulating snow again, and he can’t possibly go inside until the whole thing is clear.  You might want to bring over a cup of hot chocolate or a small meal.
  • The Over-Acheiver:  You can spot this star student by the way he not only shovels his sidewalk and driveway, but his effort extends to parts of the yard, and even into the street.  Where other houses’ curbs slope naturally to the street, his is cut at a 90-degree angle exactly at curb depth.
  • The Good Samaritan:  This guy can often be spotted down the street, snow-blowing out every plow drift along the way.  The plow drift, as Northerners know, is what the city plow deposits at the end of your driveway after you have meticulously cleared it out.  The Good Samaritan wears a frost-encrusted smile accompanied by a frozen-snot icicle mustache.
  • The Homeschooler:  You can spot this one by the number of shovels lined up in various sizes outside the door.  While the shovels are in use, please slow to 15 mph as children will be present.

Me?  I’m inside huddled next to the space heater.  The chimneys across the street are emitting a steady flow of horizontal steam, communicating a cold, steady wind against a sunny blue sky.  I can hear the rhythmic scrape of Bubba’s shovel, his black toque bobbing occasionally above the window sash.  He finally invested in a snowblower this year.  And as Murphy’s Law dictates, I think we can forecast a fairly light year for the stuff, rarely dropping enough to start it up.

Maybe that makes me the smart homeowner.

Peace . . .

Posted in Great Outdoors

A Poem So Lovely As a Tree

I’m going to put this right out there.  I have no idea what I’m doing.  If you came here for some great advice on transplanting a volunteer maple sapling, promptly hit that little back button on your browser and head off in another direction.

There are no trees in my yard, front or back.  I’ve been thinking about a tree since I moved here over 4 years ago.  If raking were all I desired, there are several neighboring trees that supply the leaves.  Yet I would also like shade and scenery.  Teasing my barren landscape, little maples have been popping up in the worst places.  This summer there was one growing inches away from the foundation of my house.  It was either move it or kill it.  I asked my friend Mary, being a master of many talents including gardening, if she thought I could transplant this volunteer sapling in my front yard.  She replied, “Oh sure!  Those things grow like weeds!”

And so it did.  The thing grew a good eight feet tall while I was waiting for the right time.  Today the neighbors two doors down are digging an unsightly hole in their front yard and messing around with their gas and sewer lines — we’re all pretty sure there are no professionals involved.  I figured with the possibility of the whole neighborhood going up in a mushroom cloud, there isn’t going to be anyone concerned with me planting what may very well be a dead maple tree by the time I get done with it.  This seemed like the perfect day.

Step 1.  I dug up the sapling, trying to preserve as much of the root as possible and, I’m afraid, not as much as necessary.

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Step 2.  The soil was loosened up by soaking with a garden hose, and a nice round hole was traced out with a spade.

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Step 3.  I dug the hole, making a little berm along the down-side to discourage water runoff.  At this point, I was laughing wondering if the neighbors thought I was starting my own sewer/gas-line project.

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Step 4.  The seedling was set with purchased topsoil to keep it in place — which is smack in the middle of my front yard.  Everywhere else seemed too close to the neighbor’s pine, the driveway, the city easement, or the house.  Smack in the middle it was!

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Step 5.  The side branches were pruned to encourage straight growth and lessen distress on the sapling.  Have I mentioned I do not know what I’m doing?  I sound good though, right?

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It’s been a few hours, the sun has almost set.  The top leaves look a little . . . sad.  This is where I plead for comments on ways I can improve this little guy’s chances.  I have always been pretty lucky with flowers, and can grow enough vegetables to keep the two of us and a rabbit in fresh produce for the summer.  I can grow weeds like you have never seen before.  I can NOT grow grass to save my soul!  But a poem so lovely as a tree?  We shall see . . .   We shall see.

Posted in Great Outdoors

In Lawns as in Life

Maybe I ought to take a minute to explain my situation.  I realize that my declaration of seeking peace, balance, wholeness, etc., sounds like I eat local, attend a power-yoga class, and wear sustainable clothing.  I am sorry if I have misled anyone.  I live in a meager home supported by a meager salary.  I like to grow vegetables because they are so good for me and taste better than anything I have EVER bought anywhere, but also to supplement my grocery bill.  My garden this year is disappointing.  Last spring I lacked the funds to buy new seed and replenish spent soil.  So I’m not heading out to Whole Foods in my hybrid each week.  Please understand, this quest is all about doing what I can with what I have.  I am simply your average Joe . . . er . . . Jean.

Just over four years ago I moved into my current residence.  I bought it as a small, four-bedroom rambler, which is now a two-bedroom rambler due to the addition of an office/craft room and a dining room.  There is a nice fenced-in back for Barney and Sabbath.  In the front is a yard with a pretty brick planter.  For the first time ever, I am the proud owner of my very own lawn!

There was a lawn at my marriage home, but aside from my occasional watering and mowing, it belonged to my husband.  It was also the envy of the neighborhood.  So, I thought, how hard can it be?  I know all the terms:  fertilizer, de-thatch, water, aerate, over-seed, pre-emergent weed killer.  Oh yeah.  I’ve got this covered. That first summer, I had nice green grass.  I followed the lawn-care calendar.  The following spring, the bottom third of the lawn was yellow and crispy.  I watered.  I watered some more.  But it was dead!

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Watering the Weeds

Since then, I’ve worked out that I had probably over-fertilized the first fall.  The dead grass left the ground unprotected.  The slight slope began to erode and now has lumpy divots.  Where grass failed to take root, weeds had no problem whatsoever.  The best advice I can get from friends and family is to hire a lawn service.  My checkbook says no.

Let me just say this.  I really don’t even agree with having a lawn at all.  Pouring clean water on grass when a large part of our global population has none to drink or bath in is terribly irresponsible.  Sprinkling chemicals that wash into waterways is criminal.  Polluting the air with the petrol-run mower and disturbing the silence of a Sunday afternoon ought to be considered the height of social rejection.

Yet here I am lamenting over my front yard for the sole purpose of fitting in.  What is wrong with this picture?  I have succumbed to the pressure of society in suburbia.  I rate my curb appeal against other plots, and find myself at the bottom of the competition.  I do not run the risk of having Bob up the street stopping by to ask, “You trying to make us look bad with that lawn?”  (I have heard envious neighbor dudes say that to one another.)

Here is my crossroad — I’m not just talking grass here anymore — for lawns and for life.

  • I can continue to water, keep things green and see what comes up, hoping for more grass than weeds.
  • I can dig the whole thing under and start new.
  • I can just spread some new dirt of the top, level it out, then sprinkle grass seed on top and water it well.
  • Or maybe I could rethink the whole thing and begin to plant native plants and ground cover that need less water, minimize the need for fertilizer, and require less mowing.

Why is it the option that excites me is the one that ignites such self-doubt?  Of course, I’m speaking about the last option.  There is so much to learn and a whole new way to think about my front yard.  It’s the area that is right out there for the whole world to see. I run the risk of Neighbor Bob walking down asking, “Sooo . . what have you got going on over here?”  Reading between the lines I would know he was thinking, “There goes the neighborhood.  Damn hippies.”

Seeking peace, balance, wholeness and all things precious in lawns as in life.  Wishing I didn’t worry so much about what everyone else thinks. Doing what I can with what I have.  Working on my own corner of the world because it’s already as much as I can handle. Trying to do the right thing.