Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Grandma Renner’s Crape Myrtle

More on the subject of trees and plants: This is a good time to point out that our crape myrtle bush is blooming better than it has since Sue and I dug it up from my Grandma Renner’s former yard on Jefferson Street.

Grandma Renner had sold her house in the late 1980s and had died in 1998, and by 2004 her former house was slated for demolition. It had stood vacant for years, and the current owners were holding it on speculation that the entire block of adjacent houses would soon become a motel or chain restaurant or two.

My mom called me the first week of March 2004 to let me know that she had learned the house—a sturdy brick home built in 1957—was slated for demolition, and soon. They were gonna bring in dozers and push it over like an old shed. The speculator-owners were already cutting down and chipping up all the trees on the three or four properties they owned in that area.

On the sunny but cold afternoon of Sunday, March 7, 2004, Sue and I drove past Grandma Renner’s old address on Jefferson Street and were surprised to see the house was still standing. Sue noticed that the crape myrtle was still there, next to Grandma’s kitchen door.

I glanced at her and told her, “If you want to try to dig it up, I will help you.”

Until then, we had refrained from outright ripping-stuff-out-of-the-ground, because it wasn’t “ours.” But now that the house was clearly being torn down, I decided there was no reason not to take whatever we wanted.

So we went inside the house and poked around. The doors were unlocked. Bums had been in there; the place was trashed. It was hard to see. I was kind of glad they would be tearing it down.

We took a bunch of rocks that had extended a retaining wall in back, where Grandma’s rhubarb and wisteria had been, and other rocks from where she’d had an iris bed between her yard and the Bernskoetters’ next door.

We found some daffodils poking out of the ground, and took them.

But the crape myrtle was the biggest deal of the day. What a job that was! That clay soil out on Jefferson Street was so hard to work. I can’t imagine how sad Grandma Renner must have been to leave behind her rich black garden soil when she moved away from Elm Street—soil that had been tilled and amended and cared for since the 1800s.

But it had rained fairly recently, so we could at least get a shovel into the clay around the crape myrtle—meaning the job would be tough but not impossible.

There had been two crape myrtles, both planted soon after Grandma, Grandpa, and my mom had moved into their new house in 1957—one that bloomed lavender and stayed fairly small, and this pink one, which got big but took a while to start blooming. They were on each side of the kitchen door.

So the crape myrtle had plenty of time to become well established. During its first couple of decades at 1418 Jefferson, it had been watered and fertilized and tended by my master-gardener grandmother. I remember as a teenager getting on my knees and trimming out dead branches and pulling autumn leaves from the thicket of trunks at the base. Even then, the crape myrtle’s highest branches were tickling the soffits of Grandma’s one-story house.

I’m sure it got very little care those last years when the house was vacant, if it received any care at all. Maybe the Schaefers, next door, occasionally hit it with some water. I wonder.

Anyway, we certainly had our hands full—this was an enormous shrub to be digging out of damp clay without the benefit of a backhoe. We had sharpshooter shovels, a heavy-duty branch trimmer, and some stout hand trimmers. Hah!

We dug a deep trench around the root ball, grimacing each time we had to sever a large root. We took turns chopping into the stiff soil while the other reached into the hole and hauled out the heavy clay.

We ran into our biggest problem when we had to figure out how to detach the root-ball from the earth beneath it. We could tip the shrub back and forth a little, but it was still firmly attached to the ground with earth and roots. We couldn’t get “under” it.

The neighbors spotted us and came over—the Schaefers, Grandma’s dear friends, now grown elderly themselves. Ralph offered us the use of a regular spade and a pitchfork—which weren’t quite what we needed—then he got the bright idea of us using a chain to pull it out.

Sure, what the heck. He fetched his heavy chain, which had a hook on each end, and a piece of scrap carpeting. We looped one end of the chain around the root-ball, cushioning it with the carpeting, and hooked the other end of the chain around the part of Sue’s truck chassis that holds the back bumper on.

Well . . . you live and learn, huh? Here is what happened. Sue did a great job of gently, gently tugging on the root-ball with her truck—what a fine touch! But all of a sudden, the chain dug into the carpet, creasing it, and cut right into the middle of the root-ball, darn near splitting it in two. Arrrgh!

A huge lack of foresight. The chain and carpeting didn’t end up working like a “spatula” at all—it was more like a knife! Next time, if we ever have to do this kind of thing again, we’ll position the chain where we want the thing to be severed!

And it also bent Sue’s bumper in the process. Yep. (And it’s still bent to this day!)

But apparently, as it turned out despite my worry, we hadn’t damaged the taproot too badly. And our action did get the shrub to detach completely from the soil beneath it.

The next project was to lift the freaking-heavy plant with its wad of moist clay soil into the back of Sue’s pickup. We had trimmed off the branches quite a bit, but it was still rather spiky and poked us a lot. So we wrapped it in an old pink plastic shower curtain we use for such purposes, hefted it onto the tailgate and pushed it in, and then drove it home to Elm Street, where the soils are black and loose and full of nutrients, earthworms, and life.

Digging the new hole for it was incredibly easy, like digging into a piece of moist chocolate cake. It was as if the soil in our yard was accepting, embracing, the tired old, new plant.

By March 18, they had demolished Grandma’s old house on Jefferson Street; it was just a pile of bricks. But by that day, I was sitting in our backyard, contemplating the bedraggled crape myrtle, and daring to hope: “Go man, go!”

To look at it now, you would never know the crape myrtle had experienced such adventures.

[Addendum: For a photograph of Grandma Renner and her crape myrtles, see my post here.]


Anonymous said...


Julie said...

Why, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was a really good year for CM's here in Missouri, too. It did my heart good to see my grandma's bush do so well.

By the way, I'm adding a link to the bottom of this post to a slightly later post that shows a picture of my grandma with her crape myrtles.