There may come a time in your life during which you inherit a garden. Or perhaps you will be given one, or find one. Any way it happens, I can guarantee that you will think one thing, and that thing will be, “What the hell were they thinking?”
The Young Couple
I was given a garden by a neighbor when she moved out of our shared building. She and her partner were moving into a yurt; a yurt they built themselves out of organically raised, local lumber, and plaster made from quinoa husks and the tears of vegan environmentalists. I assume.
Our house sits at the front of a strip of lawn, in the center of a 30-acre wood. There is one sunny patch at the end of this lawn, in which squats a large, fenced-in patch of weeds masquerading as a vegetable garden. Along the front and south side of the house is another patch of weeds, through which occasional clumps of irises struggle up. By the time we moved in, two years ago during a particularly hot and humid July, these sunny patches had been claimed by our neighbor, by virtue of her four month seniority.
“There’s 30 acres here,” she snorted, when I ventured to ask if we might share some garden space. “I think we can co-exist.”
“Yes,” I replied, “but I can’t really grow tomatoes in the woods.”
For this she had no answer, but neither was garden space forthcoming.
During the following months I watched, with mixed amusement and furious anger, as she flailed about in the garden. Truckloads of hay were laid down for mulch, until enough oat sprouted to supply a bakery. A gallant cucumber struggled up through the weeds, fruit spoiling on the vine, grabbing at the fence for support like a man who has reached the dead end in which the pursuing zombies will devour him. An aggressive comfrey plant reached out its leafy claws and ate an infant tomato patch. Four large flats of baby kale sat on the lawn for months, until the sun withered them. (The two kale plants that made it into the garden grew leggy, until their moth-eaten heads flopped over.) Every plant that survived to make fruit lay forgotten, unpicked, and unloved. Meanwhile, I turned over a new bed on either side of the sunny quarter, mentally casting the evil eye over all their land, cursing their children, and their children’s children, and the giant black walnut under which my corn and beans sulked.
Perhaps you think I am unduly harsh. It’s hard for me to feel charitable about these former neighbors. She and her partner had moved out from the city, and their inexperience was clear. So, however, was their overwhelming sense of smug superiority. They had read articles, you see. Articles on organic gardening, if you please. If we needed any help, we could just let them know.
But eventually they moved, and they took their ducks with them.
“Chickens are so smelly,” they had sneered when we moved in. “We had chickens.”
“Only when you don’t clean up after them,” I replied, trying to keep my face carefully neutral.
Before they left she took me on a tour of the garden, which she had so graciously given over to my care. “We’re coming back for the garlic,” she said, waving at a patch of grass. “And the walking onions.” Another wave. “But I brought in organic compost for the beds. And everything has been sheet mulched.”
Over the next year, that became my refrain. “It’s been sheet mulched!” I said, as I shoved my fork in the bed, to discover that the compost had been summarily dumped on top of solid clay. “It’s been sheet mulched!” I shouted, as I heaved another head-sized rock out of the dirt. “But it’s been sheet mulched!” Mr. Cloud Ring laughed, as I pulled out yet another grass root as long as myself. Under the cool, moist cardboard and hay with which she had “sheet mulched” the garden, the grass had been having the time of its life. Never have I seen grass roots so hardy and wide reaching. As the cardboard disintegrated I also discovered that she had neglected to remove the packing tape. Eventually the autumn wind began blowing the trash and bits of cardboard through the garden, clogging the fence and creating a visual tableau best described as “blustery Walmart parking lot.”
But not everything could be blamed on our neighbors. The glass, for example. Broken glass is a given in any old garden space, but over the last two years I’ve pulled out enough glass to re-glaze a cathedral. And it’s not just in the garden, either. In the woods, in the chicken pen, along the stream… Whoever used to live at this house, I can only assume a window killed his mother. Nothing else explains this level of carnage.
I’ve more or less got the garden under control now. I’ve smothered the comfrey under a compost pile. I whacked the couch grass into submission. I hauled out enough rock to build a second apartment. Of course, we’re leaving in three months, so I’ll have to turn it over to some other young couple. They shouldn’t have any problems with it. After all, it’s been sheet mulched.