I have never been much of a gardener. I have always done well with houseplants, and loved gardens, I just didn’t actually so much have a garden. When we bought our house it was clear that the big house cast shade all over the small lot in such a way that I could never have any of the flowers I loved, no bright zinnias, blowsy peonies or tumbles of vintage roses. There was not enough light to plant vegetables, either, or a kitchen garden of herbs.
There was a kind of garden on the property, a sort of stage-y and stark shade garden with odd clumps of fuchsias and hostas, as well as two crooked and mismatched arbor vitae plopped in grave-shaped beds on either side of the front walk. With a combination of optimism and hubris I pulled up most of the shade plants and gave them away. I also had the ridiculous trees cut and removed all of the bricks that had edged the beds. I always meant to do something about all of it, but I didn’t know how, and every year it seemed more overwhelming. There was a jungle of “volunteer” trees and God knows what in the back, and the front looked rather like the post-apocalyptic landscape of a Mad Max movie with its shabby grass, uneven shrubbery and empty beds of dirt.
We live on a street of student rentals, and although our yard would have mortified and annoyed traditional suburban neighbors, it fit right in, here. I knew that things were different in “regular” neighborhoods. I heard theGarden Nazi stories in which some very nice, competent person of my acquaintance was tormented by neighbors because of what they did in their yards and gardens.
One friend, a very skilled gardener, moved into a house with an existing set of plantings that she wished to change. Every time she went outside in her clogs and gloves to pull up some hostas or thin out the beds along the driveway, an anxious neighbor would appear to ask her if she realized that the previous owner had done things differently. She began to feel, she said, as if they were lying in wait behind expensive curtains to pounce on her the minute she snipped a branch. Another friend talked about the neighbors who had grimly and tacitly judged them because (while juggling three young children and two full time jobs between them) they weren’t doing enough in their yard. Maybe it was just better to leave things as they were rather than make a huge effort and risk the judgment and disdain of real gardeners.
This year, for a variety of reasons, I grew a pair (of garden gloves). I wanted an herb garden for cooking and making tinctures and salves, and so I bought seedlings, planted them in Café Bustelo cans and put them in an old Radio Flyer wagon that can be moved into the rectangles of sun that move daily around the house. There’s also a tomato plant in there, and a jalapeno. Shortly after the wagon became a fixture in our yard, one of the students living next door for the summer came over and said he liked it, and that they had been thinking about planting a garden if it was okay with their landlady. Another day, as my husband obligingly moved the wagon into the sun, a different student walked by and complimented him on the plants.
In our universe, on the wrong side of the tracks, it seemed there was a reverse Garden Nazi Effect. Our neighbors, as yet unencumbered by the exhaustion of keeping up with various Joneses, thought our small efforts were worthy of note. Emboldened, I asked Rob if he could put back the bricks I had taken out so long ago, and if maybe we could make flower beds where the icky arbor vitae had once stood. I told myself sternly that it did not have to come out looking like a spread from “Better Homes & Gardens;” it just had to be neat and pretty.
He dug trenches, he replaced the bricks, and we bought pounds and pounds of soil and flats of small, bright begonias. Yesterday we planted, and as we knelt on either side of the walk, several student neighbors called to us that it looked really nice. One stopped by to tell us we should “take a break.” To me, it felt like Norman Rockwell through the looking glass – we were out gardening on a Sunday afternoon, and the passing neighbors were complimenting us on our work, but the neighbors were 20-year-old guys coming home from a day of playing beach volleyball or on their way to grab a burger at the bar. It was community, on this street where red plastic cups bloom in the yards and the grass is sometimes fertilized with cheap beer. Our neighbors are not families with manicured yards, but they are neighbors.
We still have more plants to plant, and there’s the jungle in the back to deal with, but even if we make mistakes or wildly unconventional choices I know that our efforts will be greeted by our neighbors with radical acceptance and enthusiasm. That, and my begonias, make me very happy.