Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sisyphus had a rock. I have young cottonwoods.

In the Greek myth, Sisyphus rolls a rock up a hill, gets it almost to the top, and then it rolls back down and he must start all over all while being in Tartarus (a version of the underworld) for eternity. This was a punishment for general misbehavior (to put it mildly) while he was alive.

While I am not being punished for general misbehavior (that I know of), I do have a sense of why this was quite a punishment. For the last four years, as part of restoring our farm to a more natural state, (and because we have an itty-bitty amount of shade), I have planted young, native cottonwood trees near the seasonal stream that runs along one side of our property. I probably would have given up if it weren't for the fact that there is a huge cottonwood tree on another fork of this stream that I can easily see from our property. There are many other cottonwood trees which look self-planted within short walking distance of our farm as well. So, I know they can live in this area given the right conditions. They grow quickly, which is a big plus for our shade-starved pastures, and they helpfully distribute water to the plants around them, which seems rather helpful, especially since the long-term plan is to bring more shrubs and slower growing trees to that part of the property.

The first attempt was made after we had lived here for about a year. After reading a native plant site that said you can plant and walk away from most California natives, we went to the local Conservation District plant sale and got (amongst other items) three or four cottonwoods. The watering system was turned on once or so a month, and everything was humming along, and then we had a heat spike of several days above 107 and the cottonwoods fried. This was also when we figured out that most native plants need at least a couple of waterings a month in order to get established.

The second attempt was made the following planting season. At some point, part of the irrigation system split open, which meant that even though we were turning on the water regularly, the area with the trees was not getting any water, but we were creating an out-of-season wetland in a part of the property we weren't visiting often.

The third attempt was last year after fixing the irrigation rupture. Due to many activities on our plates, many things were neglected, including turning on certain water systems. Again, fried trees.

So, last October, I got three new victims, um, I mean cottonwoods. This time, we were going to do it right. We waited until we got rain, and planted the trees in January. Two of the trees got companion shrubs that were to grow quickly to partially shade the trees during hot summer afternoons. Instead of having a few months of rain to get established as they would have in a normal year, they only got rain until February 29, when someone apparently turned off the rain for California. That's fine though, we checked the whole irrigation system, and replaced any non-functioning drippers. Every month, I checked every dripper to make sure that they were dripping and not clogged. Progress was made! The trees tripled in height, putting on a little under a foot of growth per month.

Then came the AGS Nationals, and we were away for a week of 106+ temperatures and no supplemental water for the cottonwoods. When we got home, a good deal of our plants were showing evidence of extreme heat stress, including all three cottonwoods. I saw a tinge of green on each tree though and gave them extra water in addition to what the regular system was giving them. New leaves started to appear and I went back to the regular watering schedule. In July, during my dripper check I was crushed to see that all three cottonwoods had again died back, but this time there was no green. Somehow, out of all of the drippers on the system, JUST the three for the cottonwoods had become clogged. The companion shrubs had their water. The buckeyes, sycamore, live oak, and black walnut seedlings had functioning drippers. But somehow, the cottonwoods had gotten cut off from the water supply, and in the heat of July had perished.


Not that I'm deterred.

For Sisyphus, the task was a punishment. For me, it's a challenge.