It's hard to make changes where the roots run deep

Pulling out decades-old lilac bushes to make repairs below the ground meant a lot of clean-up and work and a good reminder that change is hard.

Lilac bushes are piled up at Jenny Schlecht's home near Medina, North Dakota, on Sept. 4, 2021. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

As I type this column, my hands and arms are aching and sore from a Labor Day weekend full of digging.

It started, as is not unusual for me, late one night when I should have already been in bed. I had just finished packing for a short work trip the next morning when I realized something was wrong with our plumbing. After some investigation and some mopping up sewage, we realized we had a clog in our septic system.

Oh what fun!

My husband figured out the problem fairly quickly. Fixing it meant digging up a chunk of land behind our house.

Our house was built in the 1960s by my husband's grandparents. I assume the lilac bushes and assorted trees that ran along the back of it likely were planted around that time. They've been in need of some attention that I haven't given them, but overall were a nice source of shade.


The excavator needed to sit right where some of the bushes were to get the hole dug. So out came a strip of lilacs.

I stood on the porch watching as the bucket grabbed and ripped at the branches. In part, I was watching on order of my daughters, who were very concerned about the future of their favorite climbing trees to the back of the bushes. But as I watched, all I could think was of the years it took for those plants to grow tall and strong and of the mere minutes it took to pull them out.

By Saturday night's end, the work was done. On Monday I set about straightening things out and planting grass in the 3,000 or so square feet that had been dug or scraped up. My initial thought was that there might be a few weeds to pull and maybe a few little roots to pull out. I had watched, I figured, all the big ones yanked from the ground.

Oh, was I wrong. I dug and pushed and pulled and twisted. I used my shovel as a lever and felt like I might, cartoon character-like, get launched into the sky as I stepped it to the ground. A few big clumps, including one that was about three feet in diameter, had to be dug out by the tractor loader.

A sprinkler waters grass where lilac bushes once stood at Jenny Schlecht's house near Medina, North Dakota, on Sept. 8, 2021. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

No matter what it looked like from the ground, the roots run deep. We got out what we had to in order to level the ground and have enough soil to try to plant some grass into. But the roots of some of those 60-plus-year-old bushes probably are still down there, intertwined with even older roots of things that came before them and the rich soil they were planted in.

Change is hard, whether it's pulling out old bushes or pulling out of a way of life. I'm guessing there's a lot of that going on this year, as drought rendered pastures unusable and hay supplies a fraction of normal. Cattle are being sold, and at some operations, they might never come back.

That's hard. Those roots run just as deep, and likely deeper, than those of our lilac bushes. They're not easy to just yank out.


While I've been writing this, I've run outside every 20 minutes or so to scoot the sprinkler over. Starting something new isn't easy either. My fingers and toes are crossed that new sprouts of life will emerge soon. But that, too, will take time and work and patience, just as starting anything new does.

It's hard to change things up when the roots run deep.

To read more of Jenny Schlecht's The Sorting Pen columns, click here.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at or 701-595-0425.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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