Saturday, April 17, 2010

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, but No Neighbors Might be Preferable….

…which is impossible in a city. And so you must adapt.

Yesterday, I learned a valuable lesson that reminded me of an oft-cited quotation by Mary Cantwell: “Gardeners, I think, dream bigger than Emperors.”

Apparently, ideationally, I am a gardener, unfettered except by my own imagination. But in practice, I am an Emperor, foiled and restrained by reality.

We own a typical semi-detached house in Wilmington. The long, narrow strip of property that is neatly situated between the front steps of both 410 and 412 is, of course, legally divided between the two homes. For a variety of reasons, the neighbors do not garden. Neither do they have trees nor even grass. What they do have is a generous supply of mulch that is once a year spread over the property by the grounds-keeping company. Despite their best intentions, though, weeds—as they always do—still manage to burst through the soil, reminding them, and me, that nature doesn’t necessarily prefer to be controlled.

At the front edge of our property, I planted a lovely purple chrysanthemum which had been given to us by our neighbors W and H as a welcome gift to the block. At the back edge along my stairwell, I planted two boxwoods. In between, I situated bearded irises (mostly pale yellow, but a few blues got mixed into the bunch and I haven’t the heart to remove them; their whimsical placement reminds me of one of the reasons why I garden: one can only control so much; some of life’s treats and greatest rewards result from the unexpected and unplanned). Big Blue Liriope lines the walkway. But the bulk of the property needed something, so I transplanted into that space every single darn invasive root of the ordinary day-lily that the previous owners stuck in 410’s main garden. I actually dislike day-lilies (public confession #4). But (a) I hate to kill plants, (b) I wanted something to fill in the space, and (c) being devious, I knew that the promiscuous day lily would spread by its own volition. Perhaps I—nay, perhaps the joy of flowers—could convince the neighbors to allow me to tend to their property.

For two years peace has reigned between 410 and 412. The day lilies, as, ahem, intended, have extended their dominion, and this year thus far it appears they have conquered the front third of that narrow strip. And despite my dislike of then, I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed their floridity last year: not only were the lilies were as tall as me, but the orange so perfectly contrasted with the blue of the house! (Denver Broncos fans take note. Dear reader, did you like that nod to the sports kingdom? Actually, that reference was for you, Bob!)

In any case, last summer I began to imagine and dream, and so colonized the land by planting a few extra clumps of Rudbeckia and sedum next to the boxwoods. The Rudbeckia grew so large this early gardening season that just last week I thrice divided it, each offspring an appreciable size.

Yesterday, 412’s grounds-keeping company came and razed the Rudbeckia and the sedum. They were the English New York to my Dutch New Amsterdam.

Viet talked me down from the ledge, from my scheme to retake my colony, much as the Dutch had done in 1673 (but, as we know, lost again, this time for eternity, in 1674). But sometimes empires are best left to die a quiet death after such dramatic defeat. It is true that I planted on the 412 side of the property-line, and so the owners had every right to excise beauty in accordance with their proprietary prerogatives and austere aesthetics. As I continued to denounce their philistinism, Viet proffered the reasonable thought that they probably just did not know Rudbeckia and the sedum were actually plants, for they indeed left unmolested the irises (which, as far as I can tell, remain legally on the land of 410) and the day lilies which, yes, have slowly conquered a sizable chunk of their property. Besides, comparatively speaking, the Rudbeckia and the sedum remained diminutive next to the towering irises.

So gardening, in imagination and in practice, has limits. And day lilies, in their subtly charming, unassuming ways, actually colonize where my will cannot. They may very well have become a welcome, and not simply a tolerated, presence in my garden. And that was the spirit in which New Amsterdam was founded, which continued unabated and flourished in New York, and remains the single most powerful pulse in that city today. Perhaps, also, it is the real root of gardening and the gardener’s imagination.


  1. I would be unable to restrain myself from asking if I could garden that spot.

  2. That's the appropriate reaction, Melinda! I, too, asked, but received a muted response even after my insistence I would tend to the patch. Sigh. Some people just don't get it...