The Pleasures of a Yard
I am an urban guy to the core, but I do have a back yard. Not much of one, to be sure: only 30 feet across by about 25 feet deep–let’s say 800 square feet tops. When we first bought this place, the yard was a rectangle of bare dirt with a single ancient plum tree near one edge. The dirt had sloped down to the house and piled up several inches higher than the foundation, so our house was “below grade”, which is contractor-speak for “buddy, you are screwed.” Moist soil against the house would rot the wood and it gave subterranean termites access to the bones of our home, termites which would silently gobble our home from within while we went about our business blissfully unaware. There was a fix, though, said the contractor . He could “raise the foundation” by cutting away the bottom foot of the house and pouring a low wall of concrete under it to support the frame. It sounded complicated, we said. It was, he said. The job would cost us $2500. Not doing it, however, would cost us a lot more.
But I, with the cleverness of cluelessness, asked an innocent question suggested by a friend of mine. “Why do we have to raise the foundation? Couldn’t we just lower the ground?” The contractor shrugged. Well, yeah. That would be another way to go. The difference was: raising the foundation was a job only he-the-expert could do. “Lowering the ground” was a stupid job that even I-the-peon could do, with a shovel and a bucket, for nothing.
I opted for Plan B: dug up the soil next to the house, moved it the back of the yard, and built a couple of redwood retaining walls to hold it in place. The yard, which had started out as a hillside sloping down to the house, ended up as three level terraces. The strip next to the house became a brick patio, the terrace above it a lawn, and the one behind that a flower bed.
And let me just say: there was nothing onerous about the work. This was my kind of project: you craft a plan, you work like a dog, and you get it done. What I liked best was the get-it-done part, because that leads to one of the great satisfactions of urban life, crossing an item off one’s to-do list. (That’s why smoking was so seductive to me in my youth: a cigarette was something I could get done in seven minutes.) What I also liked was the way this kind of work is structured. You put in one hour, you get X amount done. You put in two hours, you get twice as much done. Three hours, three times as much.
I desperately needed this kind of work as an antidote to the thing I do professionally, which is to write. With writing, you put in one hour, you might or might not get something done. If you get something done and put in another hour, you might get a little more done—or you might not; in fact, you might discover that your first hour’s output was crap and you’ll have to throw it out, which means you’ve now put in two hours and gotten nothing done. Suppose you put in a third hour: you might then end up realizing the whole idea you’ve been chipping away at is stupid and you’d best cut your losses and start something new. Thus, in three hours’ work, you might actually get less than nothing done.
When you get to that point as a writer, it’s great to have a yard to attack with a shovel and a bucket. One hour of work, twenty buckets of dirt moved. That’s progress you can point to. As for the lawn we put in, let me not leave the wrong impression. We didn’t lovingly tend seeds with Zen calm and get one with nature. No, we went to the store and bought a product that came in rolls. One side of it was grass. We unrolled it in our yard and voila: quick lawn. Not instant lawn, it took some work, but it was the kind of work I like. Six rolls gave us 150 square feet in three hours. Had the yard been bigger, we could have bought 12 rolls and put in 300 square foot of lawn in six hours.
Turns out, though, grass grows, and you’re supposed to mow it. We forgot to do that for several years and didn’t notice any problem because the grass went on looking green from the house. How should I have known anything was wrong? I never went to check on the grass. Like I say, I am an urban guy. Why would I walk ten whole feet to the lawn when there was nothing that needed to get done out there?
When I finally bought a mower, it was too late. The grass was so long, the mower just flattened it. What’s more, we still had that scraggly plum tree next to the lawn. Every spring that son-of-a-bitch tree produced about three million plums. They were inedible until July when one day, quite suddenly, they turned sweet and delicious—for a day. But how many plums can a family eat in a day? And the day after that they turned mealy and dropped off the tree and commenced to ferment. Now you couldn’t walk across the lawn because it was squishy. You certainly couldn’t sit out there. We had to gather the plums in big black-plastic trash bags and drag them through the basement to the garbage bins. Technically, this should have been work I liked to do, because you could fill one bag in one hour, and two bags in two hours, but somehow it failed to thrill.
That’s when I discovered another project I could get done. I climbed up into that plum tree and began sawing off branches. I sawed my way down and down from the top until there was nothing left but a big, fat stump sticking out of the ground. Then I kept digging, dug further, sawing at the roots, until I had eradicated that tree. It took about a year. Crossed that item off my list. In place of the plum tree, I planted a manageable little lime bush. Next to that I built a gazebo—again the type of work from which Urban Guy can derive primal satisfaction—you can plan it, do it, get it done. Here’s the gazebo.
I say this by way of introducing my real topic. In the past year, I’ve discovered something new to do in that back yard of ours, another kind of work: it involves plants. In short, I’ve discovered the subtle satisfactions of gardening. Now I understand why toppled dictators often spend their last years communing with vegetables. And again—not wanting to create a false impression—I will pause to state what may already be obvious: my garden is nothing to write home about, even for me, and I’m already at home. I’m not about to start bragging about my great garden. The thing is though, incompetent though I be at doing gardening, gardening is very good at doing me.
It all began when Debby said, “Why do we have a lawn? It’s nothing but crabgrass and dandelions. We never sit out there. It’s ugly.”
Funny, I had never noticed. But she was right. That day I started pulling out the grass until I had made a round hole in the middle of the lawn, which I topped off with potting soil. Then I bought some flowers at Lowe’s and stuck them in and you know something, they sorta’ grew. A little later, I discovered some packets of seeds in the basement. Rumor had it, these could turn into flowers. The Internet told me to fill an egg carton with potting soil, press the seeds in , water it every day, and something would happen.
Four days later, I came to the egg carton and something amazing had happened. Dozens of tiny green threads were poking up out of the soil. It was like a science fiction movie. They grew taller. They grew thicker. And then aach one put out a pair of leaves… and then from between those came two more leaves–it was the damndest thing you ever saw.
Eeriest of all, these little shoots had an awareness of some sort. They liked light, for example, and–they knew where the light was coming from! No matter which way I turned the egg carton, they ended up leaning toward the light. Here are some of them doing it now.
My garden still looks spotty. The grass is mostly brown. The greenest parts look green because they’re full of weeds. But the flowers are coming along. And I have a couple of blueberry bushes back there that produced a total of 20 blueberries this year. And a sweet pea vine that must have given us 30 sweet peas. And a wild strawberry bush that moved in uninvited and puts out a new crop of tiny sweet red berries every time I look. As for that lime tree, it’s taller than I am now, and it produces enough limes for all the cocktails and lime meringue pies I can make.
We’re not talking about farming here. It’s not like, Oh, we’ll never starve, we grow our own food. We’d never make it through a bitter San Francisco summer on 20 blueberries and 30 sweet peas. It’s not like that. It’s more the palpable spiritual effects of putzing around in a garden. Socializing with people can be invigorating but exhausting. In a garden, you’re socializing mostly with plants, so you can let down your guard. You don’t have to muster your arguments because plants don’t have opinions. You never have to agree to disagree with a potato. But the coolest thing about plants is that you can’t hurry them, so you stop trying. While you’re with them, you have to slow down to their pace.
Not stop, though. Gardening is not like fishing. Nor like standing in line at Safeway the night before Thanksgiving. Nor like getting your license renewed at the DMV. It doesn’t boil down to doing nothing while waiting (im)patiently. In a garden, there’s always stuff to do. Weeding alone can consume as much time as you care to give it, because weeds in a garden are like typos in a manuscript: no matter how many you find, there is always one more.
Mainly, though, gardening boils down to noticing. Noticing is the chief activity here. Being attentive. And what’s there to notice are long, slow events that unfold over days, not hours or minutes. If you want your plants to prosper, you have to notice how the shadows move over the yard in the course of the days, and how dry the soil has gotten, and which plants are looking cheerful, and whether some plants are starting to bully others (because they do that), and what bugs are coming around and how your plants get along with the different kinds… Noticing is important because there’s are only a few things you can do to intervene. As with martinis, the variables are few. There’s light. There’s water. Trimming and weeding. That’s about it.
Used to be, I had trouble falling asleep. Now when I close my eyes, I visualize my garden and I’m drifting on a slow current. I see and feel the satisfying crunch of my scissors biting through handfuls of grass. (My remnant of a lawn is too small for a lawnmower or even a battery-operated grass cutter, so I am–yes: mowing our lawn with a pair of scissors. Talk about long and slow!) And I see those tiny yellow-tailed spiders scurrying to escape my trowel. And I see those funny little gray, armor-clad bugs we called kharaks in Afghanistan—“little donkeys”. Here, I believe they’re called sow bugs. I prefer to think of them as little donkeys than as bug-sized sows. When you touch one of these little fellows, he curls up into a ball and thinks he’s fooling you. It’s endearing.
It moves me to realize that in the small space behind my house, in those piddly 800 square feet, thousands of creatures are busy, busy, living their inconsequential little lives. It reminds me soothingly that I too am a busy little creature living my inconsequential life in a small space tucked somewhere into all the vastness.
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