Volume 17, Number 100, December 2014/January 2015 Newcomer by S.B. Julian
A new house, new garden, fresh start ... First morning after moving day, I take a coffee onto the porch and survey my new back yard. It is small, but after condo living it beckons like a horticultural wonderland. It has, to borrow the most famous expression in gardening, "capability".
It has long grass, weedy beds, paving stones buried under something that creeps (my plant identification book is not yet unpacked). A bird feeder hangs at a crazy angle from a gnarled old apple branch - looking like no bird has visited for years. The branch on the other hand actually sports a crop of big healthy-looking apples. So you're not done yet, old tree. We will be friends - we have things in common.
The fences too are weathered, leaning to one side. I peer over one at the neighbours' garden. Dead quiet, no one home. Good - I can take a long look. Bright bedding plants line up in parade ground rows along each border. A patio is swept clean, with a tool shed at one end where I just know the tools within hang in orderly rows. A plastic bird bath sits in the middle of a perfect circle of weed-free soil. Beside the patio is a stretch of lawn. How do they get it so green? It's practically glowing. Oh no ... can't be ... It is. The thing is nylon, one of those fake outdoor carpets. Then I see the neat stack of little flags in the corner. They actually use it as a putting green. I turn away thinking how much my garden won't be like that. I wonder what these neighbours will think when they peak over at me in turn, and see rivers of undisciplined colour flowing through curvaceous beds, shade trees, wildflowers and crops of crazy heritage vegetables. And what will they think of the chickens?
I look at my garden again, from this side, seeing it as a canvas - not blank, but one to be painted over. The result will be a bit impressionist, with a hint of the abstract but also full of story, figures, set pieces, suggestiveness, atmosphere. But unlike a painting, it will never be "done". That much I knew from earlier days in my first little garden. A garden is a work of art you keep working on. It lives, develops, responds to seasons and weather, and I'd been longing to get my spade into another one for years.
You have to get to know your plants, I know, as individuals and as a collection. You work with a constantly changing cast of characters, both stars and chorus, and a plot that unfolds as you go along. But you are not a stage manager or director, rather a student of nature, as well as its guardian and its acolyte.
With these high-flown ambitions in mind I cross the yard to the low fence on the other side. There too the neighbours seem to be out, which is handy as again I take a good long look. (I will plant a fast-growing hedge first thing; there's no privacy around here.) The people at this house must be sociable. Plastic garden chairs are scattered about and a barbecue sits ready on the patio. They also have children: I see heaps of toys. Castles and sandboxes, tricycles and wagons ... all made of plastic. Whatever happened to toys of wood, fabric and metal?
Where will these objects end up in a mere few years? In a landfill site, where they will not break down like these old trees and fences do. A shadow invades my cheerful pre- gardening reverie. The theme stays with me as I explore, unfortunately. The vendors of my new house told me there were tools in the garden shed. That is the next object of my investigations, and there I find: a plastic rake, plastic mesh netting, a ball of nylon twine, indestructible and bird-garrotting, the cracked top of a plastic birdbath, and a few half-used containers of herbicides and ant killer.
What am I going to do with all this? Where is the "away" I could throw it? My little "back to the land" dream is turning into a back to the factory showroom nightmare. I crossly slam shut the garden shed. The rusty hinge lets go of the door and it sags open to one side - not for the first time, I realize. There is a bit of bright yellow rope to tie it with - nylon, of course.
I could feel a mission coming on as I walked back toward the house. My vision of simple horticultural relaxation was already being replaced by an eco-reformist campaigning, whereby I reroute inorganic rubbish from the gardens of suburbia, cleansing the environment for birds, bugs and deer. A sudden movement, a flicker in the grass, makes me jump: a garter snake. I recoil and smother a shriek. But I recover, feeling tested already. Even you, I say to the snake: defending ecology means defending it all. There was no point in being squeamish. A neighbourhood Joan of Arc I will be, guerrilla gardener working by moonlight, swooping like the owl, companion of raccoons, flinging seeds and compost over fences and attracting the very wildlife that others try to get rid of.
Realistically, I guessed, I would probably become labelled as the neighbourhood witch, the crazy woman. Already I felt a pricking of my thumbs - and eyes boring into my back. I turned toward the yard made of nylon grass, and saw a figure waving a bright white plastic kettle. "You must be the new neighbour!" she exclaimed. "Tea?"
"Sure!" Infiltrate the enemy lines, I think darkly. Might as well get started.