The Ping-Pong Patch

The Table Tennis Arena

If COVID-19 wasn’t worrisome enough, we dodged tornadoes, scared off black vultures, and survived two nights of hard freezes this month. Gardening and Ping-Pong, peculiar bedfellows, eased my restless mind.

The Ping-Pong table, dubbed a “table tennis arena” by New York Times writer Michael Tortorello, is getting a workout this spring in our Salvisa barn. So is the adjacent patch of shade plants.

Ping-Pong Patch and the crooked corn crib

Mac Reid, a neighbor and life-long friend, and I play Ping-Pong several times a week. We are semi-isolationists. Neither one of us wanders far from home, except for essential shopping, wildflower walks and Ping-Pong. We maintain a social distance of 9’—the length of the table—when we play.  I can jaw with the best of them, but only occasionally win a game. (Mac has a bag of trick shots.) We wash our hands after each match.

Trillium flexipes.

The saucer magnolia, adjacent to the arena provided ample cover for shade-loving plants until wood-pecking, yellow-bellied sapsuckers along with bitter cold nearly wiped out the tree four years ago. I had watched sapsuckers poke bands of holes up and down the 45-year-old magnolia for several years beforehand.

I was warned that the naughty sapsuckers could kill the tree. I ignored the experts. And, following a cold winter (-20F/-29C), the magnolia lost its zest. That spring, the top third of the tree, weakened by sapsuckers, was dead. I told Rose we should take it down.

“No, No, No,” she pleaded. Robert Rollins, our go-to arborist and marriage counselor for all things dendroidal, mediated. “Well, it still looks like it’s has a little life.” My strategy hung on Robert’s emphasis of “little life.”

I lost the argument.

The saucer magnolia riddled with sapsucker holes. An old wash sink is parked nearby.

Robert’s crew, with the heart-strings-pulling company name SavATree, cut out the dead wood.  That summer, and for the next three years, puny water sprouts grew in weak desperation. The tree, stripped down, looked like Paul Bunyan’s coat rack.

Our stew pot of herbaceous plants fought it out underneath the diminished shade of the saucer magnolia.  An old concrete wash sink sits parked close by, waiting for inspiration and muscle to move it somewhere else for a purpose beyond junk. A decoy owl is perched in the branches overhead. The sapsuckers seem confused.

Box elder (Acer negundo) takes flight with a shower of helicopters. And, oh my, the naughty, maple tree seedlings to follow.

The small patch, with its evenly moist, rich soil, continued to accept an ever-increasing number of orphaned shade-loving and resilient odds and ends. Little attention was provided beyond pulling up box elder seedlings and celandine poppies that Bob Hill warns: “… will populate like gerbils.”

Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). “Populates like gerbils,” warns Bob Hill.

Some comfort was given last spring when I put in a moss walkway next to the crooked corncrib. This small gesture freshened things up and showered the forsaken patch with a little life and love.

The space, around the arena, was never ignored completely, but it didn’t get the full attention it deserved—until this March when, once again, for ten days, there were gorgeous magnolia blooms in the Ping-Pong Patch

Camassia leichtlinii ‘Blue Danube’

Somehow, miraculously, our dreamy magnolia blooms were not turned into ugly brown tissue paper by the typical, odds-on killing frost.

Redbud and dogwood blooms in the Bluegrass swept in and moved out.

Tree frog in a sassafras

Virginia blue bells, trilliums, primroses and little brown jugs partnered up with a young sassafras and a tree frog.

The little patch rejoiced.


  1. Nice piece Allen! I’m intrigued by your comment that the sapsuckers seemed confused (by the fake owl? The pruning?). Did they make like a tree and leave? Also, what’s the story with the “ghosts of birdhouses past” birdhouse, hanging on the magnolia branch?

    • Thanks, Anne. Well, there’s a lot going on around the Ping-Pong Patch. There is the fake owl that seems to be scaring off a few, but not all sapsuckers. (The sapsuckers have their eye on an old Norway spruce right now. Maybe another fake owl will come to roost.) And, then there is the visionary birdhouse. It’s different! Maybe the sapsuckers don’t take kindly to it. I don’t know. But it’s a favorite birdhouse of mine. Was designed and constructed by Churchill Davenport, Jr.

  2. This gives me another thing to be thankful for: not living in a country where birds drill holes in your trees. Now if I could just get rid of the citrus borer that’s doing it instead…

    I like the tree frog – it looks very peaceful and content – perhaps even a little smug – in these times of upheaval.

    • Deborah, the tree frog hung around in the sassafras tree for a couple of days, looking very smug. I take a peek every few days to see if she has returned.

  3. Hey Allen,
    I hope your doing well. Great article. Your sis gives me occasional updates on your activities and they are always interesting.
    I loved playing ping pong at your arena…it’s a special place. I need to get back in the game and start playing again.
    Hope to see you soon,
    Pat Dwyer

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