“You should really do something with these garden beds,” my friend called over her shoulder as she buckled her kids into their car seats. I waved and gave a perfunctory nod the way a person would if their mother told them to get more sleep. I stepped to the edge of our front porch and peered over the railing at the fallow plots of land.
“It would be therapeutic,” she yelled out the window as her car reversed out of the driveway. I wasn’t convinced there was any mental health modality that included dirty knees and unflattering hats, but cultivating a hobby, as well as my front lawn, seemed like something I should make space for.
The problem was that I hadn’t the faintest notion how to go about establishing a garden. The closest I’d ever come to tending flora was unsheathing roses from plastic before plunking them into a vase. Truth be told, I rarely succeeded at even finding a vase, allowing the bouquet to wither inside a beer stein. I grew up in Arizona, where the majority of people I know don’t garden. No one empties a watering can onto the desiccated ground because they’re too busy dunking their sweating heads in it. The decade I’d spent in New York City certainly hadn’t helped to connect me to my agrarian side, since the only greenery I regularly interacted with served as the toilet for our dog.
I thought about who I could bring in to help me on my quest for self-fertilization. My social network was starkly devoid of farmers, florists, landscapers and Native Americans. I stared despondently across the lawn, my gaze settling on our neighbor’s well-tended property when it occurred to me that they would be the perfect instructors. The two of them log more time outside during one summer day than I will in my entire lifespan. They have shrubs, flowers, a pond and vegetables poking through the soil; it’s a veritable biosphere just over the fence. They’re always digging and pruning and poking at things with medieval-looking instruments, and they comfortably use words such as “till” and “nitrogen” in conversation.
They led me through their gardens with the ease of a tenured curator. We crouched before low-lying bushes and studied the blossoms and the girth of their roots. They pointed out each plant’s preference for sunlight, water and proximity to other plants the way the manager does for a restaurant about to host their asinine celebrity client. I nodded knowingly despite feeling like one of those inner-city kids who incorrectly identifies a canine as a goat on a standardized test. Ahh, so that’s grass? And it grows?
They stopped the tutorial several times to gently inquire whether I needed to write anything down. I shook my head vehemently, certain that my thumb had become too green to manipulate a pen, confident I’d internalized everything I needed to know to grow a lush utopia. I was sent on my way with the types of hardy perennials that should endure even the most neglectful of conditions. I recited these names as I drove to a local greenhouse: Hosta, phlox, catmint. Hosta, phlox, catmint…
Intoxicated by the ambrosial aromas capering around my nostrils as I strolled the colorful lanes of the garden store, I lost all recollection of what I had come for. I plucked buckets of brightly colored, exotic flowers and tubs of broad-leafed shrubs. I seized plant after plant, figuring they all had to be cheap as dirt because, well, they derived from the dirt. A clerk asked whether I needed any help. I desperately tried to recall the fail-safe plants my neighbors had stressed. I began to sweat in inconvenient places, as I am prone to do when confronted with a question I cannot answer. I stammered, “They sound like Hasselhoff, Dental Floss, and Catnip.”
As I struggled to heave buckets into the back of my car, I glanced at the receipt that had been tucked among the leaves. Dumbstruck by the high cost of some shit that I could just steal from beside a highway, I realized that my friend was right: Gardening is exactly like therapy. It’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of money and, in the end, there will be very little growth.
(This piece ran in the Bangor Daily News paper this week, so I apologize to those who have already read it. I try to run distinct pieces at each place I write, but sometimes I just can’t squeeze enough time to do so.)