Adventures of a City Gardener
Around August 2020, more than four months into the first deadly wave of Covid, I needed a new project to keep me sane. I’d gone through every family photo album, bought a massage table perfect for stretching out my stiff, unused muscles, wielded scissors and cut my husband’s hair, and started and then tossed the beginnings of too many futile stabs at creative writing. My attempts at gratitude failed me.
But then I decided to turn the mostly burnt summer grass that separated the street from the front cement sidewalk in front of our house and turn it into a delicious parkway garden. It was a major project that required removing all the grass and then revitalizing the soil like cleaning off all the rust on what my dad used to call “farm shit,” tools that had decades earlier been replaced by electric saws, and edgers, bulb planters, hand-powered lawn mowers. What took the place of burned grass was an empty forty-three by twenty-foot space that our next-door neighbor immediately called a “dirt patch” which, believe me, was not meant as a compliment. He liked to look out of his front window, he said, and to enjoy a carpet of green that ran from one end of the block to the other with nothing out of order. The guy’s a lawyer.
Thankfully, his disdain for my new garden to be filled with native plants to attract bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds was not shared by my other neighbors and passersby. I can’t lie: I fantasized about circulating a petition and getting signatures from all who loved and appreciated the garden just to show the neighbor guy that he had lost his case. But as time passed and the echinacea died to make way for the chrysanthemums, when the bright orange butterfly weed faded and the anemones bloomed to take their place, I was reminded that life is a cycle, a progression and that there is always hope for the dark to transform into the light.
My husband spent days building a picket fence around the garden to protect it from dogs and other critters that loved to sniff around and find the perfect spot to pee or poo. The fence performed admirably, and few flowers met an early demise. But then we received a letter from our beloved city on the shores of Lake Michigan. Someone had made an anonymous call to our 311 non-emergency number and made a stink about the fence. She was afraid (We suspect it was a momma bear) that with Halloween just around the corner the fence would be a danger to trick or treaters who might trip and fall. We were instructed to remove the fence or face a fine.
We stood indignant those first few days; we would pay the fine before taking down the fence but after more thought, we came up with a plan: we’d encircle the garden with the bright yellow “Do Not Enter” tape and string a few flashing Christmas lights on and around the Iron Butterfly bushes. No kid on Earth would wander in unless they were impersonating a private detective or an archaeologist digging for signs of a lost civilization.
Just as we were finishing our own Halloween “costume,” reps from the city arrived. “Okay,” they said, “this will do temporarily. You will have fourteen days from today to take down the fence.”
And, yep, you may have guessed: Mutt and Jeff showed up fourteen days later to make sure that we were good boys and girls who’d done our civic duty and taken down the fence which now sits rolled up in the corner of our garage. We decided that we liked the lights and left them twinkling until they had had enough.
The garden is spectacular. Almost every plant made it through the winter. It gets cold here in the Midwest, and I’m always amazed when spring rolls around and plants decide that it’s safe to reappear. They are much braver than I am.
There is an adage about gardens and how they grow: “The first year, plants sleep, The second year, they creep. The third year they leap.”
My garden is leaping. Every day, I stroll around her. I pick a few weeds, straighten plants that may have been battered by wind or rain, and deadhead spent flowers to provide energy for new ones. I either hand water or use a sprinkler as often as the flowers and the weather demand. Some days, I’ll take a video; on another, I’ll shoot a few photos to share with family and friends.
I cherish my garden and the joy it brings to me and to everyone who strolls by.
Everyone except the muscular man (Oh, right, the lawyer ) in a pair of solid color shorts and a tight t-shirt with a tiny dog trailing behind on a leash. The first time he walked by me, he said “You know, I think those signs about not letting dogs shit in the garden make my dog want to poop.”
I stood there my mouth wide open but with no words coming out. What was his problem? Maybe the guy had lost a business deal or gained ten pounds on Noom, or
had been ditched by his partner. I gave him a pass. Barely.
The second time we met with his dog on the leash, he repeated his initial salvo but took it up a notch by instructing me to take down the two signs that I’d purchased from Amazon. I love the sign particularly when a Robin friend sits atop it and guards against trespassers.
The third time was the proverbial charm. With his voice raised, a vein popping purple on the left side of his temple, he threatened me. “If you add one more sign, I’m going to teach my dog to shit in your garden. You’re a dog hater.”
I should have whipped out my cell phone and begun taking a video that I'd announce would be sent to the police. Or maybe I could have suggested that he walk on the other side of the street where there was free passage up and down the block. Or maybe I should call in the troops for support. I ran and got my husband. A big mistake. He ran down the street screaming "Stop! Stop! until he caught up with the guy. "If you ever say anything again to my wife, I'm going to . . ." Going to do what? My husband was several inches shorter and a good twenty pounds lighter.
From there, the altercation turned into a screaming match with a lot of "Fuck yous."
"I can see that you're afraid," the perpetrator said. "I can knock you down with one arm."
By then, I had caught up with the two men whose screaming could be heard at least a block away.
I grabbed my husband's shirt and dragged him away.
Never a dull moment for this city gardener. These are the times when I long to live on a multi-acre property far from the maddening crowd. I could garden anywhere I damn well please and never have to worry about irascible dog owners.
But then I'd have to worry about deer, rabbits, and a host of other critters, wouldn't I?
Afterword: I have not seen the garden killer since the episode last week. I'm sure that he'll be around eventually and if I were a betting woman, I'd wager that he will not cross the street and walk on the other side. I think my best reaction will be to turn around, walk into the house, and never utter a word.