A Lone Comment Leads to Action in an Unkempt Garden

An unexpected garden party prompts Faro to turn the garden back to gorgeous again.


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Illustration by Russ Ando

It wasn’t meant to be a garden party. I scheduled the dinner later in the evening to foreclose that possibility. But it was one of those calm nights when through the open windows the scents of the garden inveigled. We drifted from the kitchen, all eight of us. The pathway lights had come on although the sun had only just disappeared behind the toothed roofs of the houses across the street. 

If I had planned a garden party, I would have given the garden eight hours’ work: collected the loquat leaves, beheaded the oxalis, hedged the pittosporum, trimmed back the senecio that’s as big as a grizzly and swallowing the hammock. I’m not sure it is a senecio. Elizabeth gave me a start from her garden, demure, tender, a furry little cub. I tried to locate its botanical name, but none of the many photos of senecio species seemed to match.  

I had lost something; confidence, perhaps, in my garden. It had been ages since someone walked into it and clutched at their heart and gasped, “Gorgeous.” This approbation is not everything, not even the most of what a gardener wants from a garden, but it’s a required vitamin, like B12. Without it, my connection to the garden languished. I had minimal physical involvement since the last apple was picked. Watched it rain. Watched it stop raining. On sunny days I lay in the hammock feeling at once embraced and embalmed in greenery.

The gardener’s standby disclaimer, oh the garden looked so much better last week, was a nonstarter. Although last week the Audrey Hepburn rose was in full glory, and this week it, unlike its namesake ever was, was all hip. I had a terrible urge to apologize to my guests, which I thankfully resisted.

Besides, there were still so many arresting things: two beschornerias in flower, their outrageous pink sex organs 6 feet high; the raspberries and blueberries in full production; the red maples in neon new growth; the mad marriage of orange Peruvian lilies and azure cineraria, both headstrong, both photogenic. The Peruvian lilies have always been promiscuous, but this year the cineraria (Senecio cineraria) has gotten weedy as all get-out, popping up everywhere. Can there be too much blue, too much violet? Is there a tipping point when beauty begins to cloy?

Friends are discreet until they’re not. I was on the patio talking to Vikki, giving her good horticultural advice about indoor orchids about which I know almost nothing when I overheard, I was pretty sure, Marianne say to Bob, “The garden looks quite slovenly.”

I would expect Bob to think this, though I can’t imagine he would use that word. He used to be a policeman and prides himself on the correctional shearing of shrubbery. His pruning is in a select category. Select and saw, select and snip. He has always seen my garden as slovenly.

But Marianne? She is a poet. Once a month she calls and requests what she calls a “suspension of disbelief.” Time in the hammock. We take turns: one in suspension while the other reads aloud.

Slovenly. It was hurtful, as it always is when the scales drop from your eyes.

 

Come nap with me and be my love.

Set us a-sail with a gentle shove.

—Marianne Jubilado from The Annotated Hammock

What are hurt feelings in the catalogue of setbacks? Footnotes. I got to work the next morning, first the cosmetic stuff, the hardest being getting the grassy weeds from the pavers. I’ll never let that happen again, he said to himself. I cut back three green bins’ worth of senecio, removed and disposed of the mildewed leaves of the apple tree, swept the detritus that had collected on the rails of the fences. The revival took the eight hours I expected it would. The garden looked civilized again, at least nothing to be ashamed of, but that only added to the dilemma: how to turn it back to gorgeous.   

It was a design problem. It has always been a design problem. I have never had a clear central concept except to grow as many edibles as possible. And as many plants in general. Because of a childhood spent in the west of Kansas where nothing willingly grew taller than a sunflower stalk, the young gardener in the Bay Area could not help but be seduced by orgiastic abundance. Everything, in some fashion (or out-of-fashion) seemed to grow here except peonies. I tried those, too. Full grown, all the cute 4-inchers bought at the nursery, the cuttings and divisions from well-meaning friends, now mill around complaining, I didn’t expect to live in a jungle.

Maybe what’s happening is what so often happens with time. You get stuck in the sludge of past experience. Jaded, I believe you might say. Here’s spectacular beauty, but you don’t notice because either you’ve seen it too often before or because you’re too intent on the price tag. Or what went wrong last year. Damn squirrels, etc. You can’t locate beginner’s mind to save your soul. And so taste devolves to the conservative. Not to the extent of boxwood topiary, but toward simplicity. Is symmetry such a bad thing?  Absolutely not. How would it manifest in my garden?

The question is moot. I’d have to start over. I’d have to either bring in heavy equipment to move plants such as the lemon tree, too near the apple tree, or to eliminate them entirely. A massacre for a makeover. I don’t have it in me, neither in my soul or my wallet.

The last task I did in my slovenliness-eradication program was to dip the hammock in a bucket of soapy water and scrub it clean of dirt and mold and hang it back up to dry.

 

 One wallow does not a summer make.

Put aside your toil and we will bake

a loaf of soul. Bring lemonade.

A swinging heaven is easily made.

op. cit.

Lie in the hammock. Non-doing is a Buddhist precept. It’s not synonymous with doing nothing. Non-doing implies the perfection of things. Non-doing you notice how the world gets along just fine without you. How when you are gone it will continue to get along without you. Listen. You can practically hear the velvety leaves of the senecio sizzling with the operations of photosynthesis. Growing like mad. Already there is little evidence of the insults of a recent pruning.

 

Earth may be a place for love

But a hammock is a plane above.

op. cit.

A few weeks after the dinner party, Marianne called. “Is the hammock available? I’m inviting myself over for a therapeutic suspension. It’s beyond belief, what those thieves and scoundrels in Washington are up to. I’ll bring a bottle of bubbly.”

I was hoping she’d say something about the garden’s renaissance right off, but she barely glanced around before she rolled herself into the hammock and closed her eyes. “What are you reading?”

“A novel by Ali Smith.”

“Read me some.”

So I did. We were nearing the bottom of the bottle when I refrained no longer. “Did you tell Bob my garden was slovenly?”

Marianne looked at me, frowning. “I said it was lovely. It always is.”

 

R.E. Faro is a poet and essayist, and a longtime contributor to The Monthly. Read his blog at BerryPicking.wordpress.com.

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.

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