In the garden grows a hebe rakiensis that is about fifteen years of age. I am rather fond of these undemanding shrubs that bring their pleasing curved dome shape to the borders. However, age catches up with the best of us and this shrub is past its prime.
I have been judged and found wanting in the past – yes, Edith and Rosie, that’s you! – accused of being too soppy and sentimental towards elderly shrubs and so I hope to remedy this by being mean and ruthless and grub her out without delay.
I begin by lopping off the branches so that I can get to the roots. If this was a young tree I would leave the trunk to give me something to pull on but in this case the branches are best cut out.
Next I start to dig the earth around the shrub levering up the shallow roots that grow just below the surface. The astute and observant will notice that my fork has a prong missing. I have to confess, with great shame, that I am the culprit having pushed the fork beyond its limits in a previous grubbing out exercise. I have kept the fork though, it works just as well, and now that it is less than perfect I can use it with abandon.
The next tool to use is the grubbing axe. The broad mattock end is helpful for penetrating deeper into the surrounding ground and the axe end can be used to cut off any large roots that are growing out. The axe end needs to be kept sharp to be effective. It is easily blunted by stones in the earth but a file drawn over it keeps an edge.
We are starting to make progress. Now that the earth is well loosened I can draw out the soil and gradually work my way underneath the root system. The earth here is quite dry. There comes a point when I feel it is worth trying the crowbar. Ramming it under the root system I pull the long end up and feel whether the root system is going to give or not.
I must mention health and safety here. With all these pickaxes and crowbars flying around it is worth keeping curious children and other onlookers at a distance.
Please also look after yourself. If ever you are going to damage your groin or back then it is by grubbing out. I have learnt from bitter experience not to be so consumed with the work that I lose touch with my body. My back is quite happy to tell me when it is being pushed too far as long as I am happy to listen. Garden work like this is often slow and laborious and only fools will rush in feverishly and injure themselves.
There comes a moment when you can tug at the root system and it shudders and you know that the end is in sight. With the crowbar rammed in, try kneeling down and pushing against the long end with your shoulder if you can. The longer the crowbar the better and in extreme cases I have used scaffolding bars in the past to lever against huge root systems.
If you are grubbing out a tree then you can try pulling on the trunk using your body weight to pull it over. If there is another tree or wall adjacent you can put your back against it and your feet on the tree to be grubbed out and use your legs and thighs to exert pressure. One can also use rope and pulley systems or the winching system of a land-rover.
Eventually there comes the satisfying crunch when the shrub gives up its hold and keels over. The root system is then wheel-barrowed away along with any surface roots that have been dug out. The soil is dug over and a liberal amount of compost is applied. The shrub has been overhanging the lawn and so the damaged area will have to be raked over and reseeded.
A young robin pops out and inspects my work, snatches a couple of grubs and beats a hasty retreat.
All that remains is to put away my tools and have a well-earned cup of tea!