When my best friend Mary used to grow roses, she’d say, They’ll break your heart – meaning, I supposed, that insects and fungi and diseases and passing thieves would offer you up something new to be upset about pretty much every day.
Experiences like hers fueled my inspiration to stick closely to native and well-adapted plants; although there are still no guarantees, and native gardens still command their fair share of effort, going native is easier all the way around. And the only flower thieves I have to deal with are generally under three feet tall, so their plucking sends only the briefest stab of sorrow through my heart. Now Mary’s yard sports more and more California natives. We teach each other.
It is late September, and we’ve had rain in central Texas. This means abundance. The sidewalk garden is in flower from one end to the other, so this afternoon I went out with the camera and tripod to try to capture some of the experience. My landscape photography falls far short of doing it justice.
If you approach from the corner by the stop sign, you look down the sidewalk to find a suitably unruly array of specimen plants, self-seeding annuals, and perennials. Colors that have no business massing themselves into one small space together somehow manage to harmonize. It’s a hundred feet down to that silver utility pole that marks the end of our property, and I’ve spent many happy hours simply walking back and forth along here, just noticing everything and letting myself be surprised by all that’s changed since the last time I stepped out the door.
On brighter days than this one, when they have the sun to guide them, honeybees are at work. Here lately I’ve seen the hummingbirds feeding at the flowers even more than I’ve seen them at the backyard feeders. We’ve had blue and yellow swallowtails around, and the monarchs should be arriving any time on their way south. If spring is a time of newness, the Texas autumn is a time of continuation: we have one more course to feed the natives and the travelers as they make their way to wherever it is they go for the winter.
From the utility pole end looking down toward the stop sign, first an array of tall players: Pride of Barbados, sweet almond verbena, the esperanza finally in bloom, and the pomegranate that never flowers but is too pretty to remove. Today the lantana, autumn sage, salvia, and duranta are all in full flower; it’s a little hard to believe.
The pistachio tree is starting to turn, and over the next four or five weeks it will create an unholy mess of leaves and bundles of hard black dots I’ll be picking and blowing out of the yard till Christmas. Some trees are just messy, but who’s an unruly gardener to complain?
Walking around the yard this time of year makes me wonder what this coming winter will bring. I remember the late sharp freeze that took all the waxy new pomegranate leaves and took the yellow Mexican bird of paradise to its trunk. When I sawed the poor thing down I had no hope. It’s taken all summer, but the fragrant blossoms are back at last. The bumblebees are very territorial here, hovering and buzzing at anyone who comes too close – not to injure, simply to announce, This is ours.
For the bees, the garden is survival. For me it should be mere pleasure. But It’s difficult for me to keep my sense of self separate from these brilliant things that grow, die back, return, and flower with or without me. It’s not that I believe I make these things happen; I know my role is to poke around, put things in holes, and hope for the best. Trim some stems and branches, deliver a few barrels of rain water, and get out of the way.
I can look at the array and think, Wow, I certainly put some good things in here; but I never look at a plant and think, Wow, I did that! And if you happen to be walking by when you hear me exclaim about what a good job they’re doing, I will either hasten to the back yard or pretend I was talking to Travis.
But the thing is, I want people to like the garden. And that is a problem.
For most of my life I did not see myself as a competitive creature. Many things came easily to me and I assiduously avoided what did not. The only contests I entered were writing competitions, and there I had – if not actual confidence in my own writing – an odd kind of assurance that I could hold up against the other writers in the contest. A few good things happened and I began to actively like some of what I wrote, and to be happy when other people liked it as well.
In the world of athletics, I never even entered any arena until I was in my fifties and Floyd and I skated with a group of outdoor inline skaters. It was with Floyd that I first enrolled in an event, signed in to collect a t-shirt and a bag of play swag (a water bottle, a packet of Gu, some anti-friction cream, a handful of coupons, sometimes -pointedly – an assortment of bandages). Every time we went to a race I would swear I wasn’t going to compete, most especially if the weather was unfavorable – knife-edge hard plastic wheels on wet pavement can be a horrifyingly Bambi-on-ice experience.
But I always ended up at the starting line, grumbling with cold or trembling with fear. I discovered I liked chasing after someone who was a distance ahead of me: I can catch them by the next turn, I can catch them in the next lap. I saw that this made me a better skater, and I am glad for the years I put in skating. They taught me something about myself.
Now here I am with a front yard, a back yard, and a few little gardens here and there. Competition makes no sense whatsoever: I don’t have to consider whether a neighbor has planted their beans too soon and risked them to the last blasts of winter, or whether mine have gone in too late. The problem is my life in suburbia and how it seems to have affected my mind. I’d like this beauty to be “its own excuse for being,” but I’m just not that well put together.
Judgmental by nature, judgmental to a fault even with everything I do, I am an unruly gardener with ferocious opinions too often spoken aloud. It’s landed me in some trouble with myself. You see, our little piece of heaven has a neighborhood association that likes to put on things like ice cream socials, Easter egg hunts and July 4th parades. There are even outdoor movies in the pavilion by one of the swimming pools. It is my understanding that many families take part in such events with pleasure and a sense of companionship.
My unruly self would rather have gum surgery than participate in any of these occasions. For one thing, I am too shy and would probably speak to no one. If someone spoke to me I would require 800 mg. of ibuprofen immediately. It’s not that these people aren’t nice; they are unfailingly nice, and many are even Democrats.
Why then does it bother me every single month when once again I fail to find one of the neighborhood’s three “Yard of the Month” signs placed in my yard? I tell you, this is mortifying to admit. It’s straight out of the Groucho Marx club. I’ve tried everything I can think of to stop caring, but then the calendar flips to a new month and the signs are posted in a few yards I deem worthy (now there’s a stellar criterion for you!) and a bunch of yards that send rude noises blattering through my pursed lips. Pfffttt.
I feel like that soap opera star, Susan Lucci, who never won an Emmy and never won for so many years her losing became a badge of honor. Now I don’t even know whether they eventually granted her one or not, or how she must really have felt about it the whole time.
All this useless suffering is made especially ironic by the actual neighbors who not only walk by our yard each day, but by so many of them who tell me they go out of their way to come and see what’s going on in the garden. When I tell them I’m glad they enjoy it, I am truly happy for their pleasure, all ego aside.
Such comments invariably come right at a Pfffttt moment, snatching me back from the realm of the ridiculous to the world of the every day, where flowers and people and small occupants of strollers actually matter. To be honest, even when no one walks by, the garden itself is usually sufficient to dissipate my peevish attitude. It is exceedingly good to forget myself.
It is one of the true oddities of human nature, that we can be so distressed by a perceived rejection coming from someone we don’t especially like or want to be with. Should I ever encounter the member of the Human Creature Design Committee who came up with that practical joke of a notion, I will have many unruly things to say to them, you can be sure.
Setting flowers aside for the moment, people all around the neighborhood are invested in the seasonal occupants of our owl house, and that is a very good thing. Last night we came home from dinner and headed out to the yard for some monkey-in-the-middle with Travis. A grandmother came by pushing a stroller with two children more or less sitting in it. She asked when our owls would be back.
They should be back any time, I said, swallowing my fear that the female screech owl was lost last year; not saying a word about how I look out the front room window every morning hardly daring to be hopeful. There were no baby owls last year, and first the female, then the male abandoned the owl house.
I keep praying for them to be back, the grandmother said. I pray for them to come back.
A front garden is a public thing, and people have deep feelings about it. While it’s true that our plants and flowers and shrubs and whatnot are important to me, I like knowing they have a place in other peoples’ affections as well.
The screech owls remain out of our sight to us just now, but a closely related gift has been sent to soothe us a bit. For the first time since we’ve lived here, we have heard the Great Horned Owls hooting back and forth every evening and early morning. Last night the male perched up on our chimney, sending his mellow tones pouring down into the living room where we sat reading. I snuck out the front door to spy on him as he stood like a weathervane at the topmost point of the house: a tall black owl-shaped silhouette against a navy blue sky.
So many things come along to remind me that a Yard of the Month sign is just a cardboard thing on a couple of thin metal legs. When I have the sense to think at all, I can’t think of a single thing in my life that I would trade for it. And if the screech owls will only be safe another season, perhaps even making their way back to our house, I’ll feel the relief I find every year on their return. The world will be right again.
And a cardboard sign on the front lawn will be relegated to its proper place in my mind: the immeasurable collection of things that have never truly mattered at all.