I have waited about two weeks to write this. First, because I needed to count to 1. Then, because 10 wasn't enough. And by the time I got to 70 I was too sad to write.
That is what happens when a gardener is told to ungarden.
Our neighorhood is unusual in New York because it has spaces for long front gardens, as well as backyards. Some of them there are very beautiful (you can see some of them in the article I wrote for Gardenista). In others there is plain concrete or oversized and very ugly gravel around unhappy shrubs. There are lots of shrines and plaster statues of Mary. Occasional concrete reindeer.
In ours - above - there are five junipers and yews. They are cut hard and suffer from drought. Around them when we arrived late last August was pale gray soil and white gravel and dead weeds and someone's abandoned tomato plant. Also a patch of hostas that looked worse and worse as the drought we experienced grew longer. Our bedroom windows face this, and we pass it every time we enter or leave our ground floor apartment. Depressing. But also, for a gardener, inviting. This is south-facing and in full sun,whereas our back garden is in shade for most of the year (the exception being late June through August).
Late last fall I planted some perennials in the empty gravel patch, buying them at the local Gowanus Nursery and GRDN, in nearby Boerum Hill. Echinacea, agastache, amsonia (I had always wanted to grow amsonia). I got a deal on November plants at Gowanus, and acquired clary sage and ornamental oregano. I planted some of the mass of daylilies I divided in the back garden. I swept the front path every week and collected the fallen black locust leaves to use as a mulch on the barren soil. I hoped these plants would be able to tough it out with watering just a few times a week (by watering can, carried in several trips through the house).
Then came winter, as it does.
Underneath lay the frozen plants and I wondered if they would survive to make this front space more inviting.
They did. They emerged in April and began to settle in. I added some annual pansies and nemesias.
The scraggly perennial snapdragon burst into flower. Alliums opened. Bees arrived.
There was life, and beauty. That is what gardens are.
In early summer the existing daylilies I had divided and moved from the weedy back garden flowered with the clary sage, now three feet tall. Neighborhood friends donated plants, neighborhood friends watered them while we were away.
By mid summer the agastache was tall, and we were shielded from the street by leaves and flowers. I am so sorry I did not photograph the liatris - it was stunning and is the most forgiving plant I have met.
When we came home from Cape Town I spotted two different warblers hopping about, here. The garden was by then looking seedy in a mini High Line kind of way. The honey bees were still bending the calamintha stems low. On the streets the cicadas were raucous.
I came out to pick up a delivered parcel one day and bumped into our landlord with our (now former, mysteriously) super. The super was talking about this front garden saying it had its own set of "issues." Snow shoveling was mentioned. Odd for a guy who never lifted a shovel. Also under discussion were the pots with flowers on the stoop, planted by our neighbors, two floors above, who've been here for about ten years. Their flowers attracted us to this place, last year. We water their plants if they are out of town. At least three floors of this house are home to people who garden and who love plants.
The verdict: Everything had to go. My plants and their stoop pots. Our landlord said I should have asked if I could plant here. And he's right. I didn't ask. This is not my property. I just live here. When I asked him why he wanted the plants out he answered at last, quietly, that he preferred it to look "clean."
It took me a few days. Then, last Monday I dug it all out.
3 clary sage
2 hardy snapdragons
3 ornamental oregano
5 late blooming alliums
3 spring alliums
1 lamb's ear
I left the sedum to flower. Then it too, will go. I made a snap decision: since these plants are sun lovers they won't like the back garden (although the calamintha will be OK), so I removed three roses in pots in the front, against the house wall and planted some of these perennials in them. The roses had not done well after late May - too hot.
One of the stoop-garden neighbors came out to water his husband's pots as I unplanted. We both had just one question: Why? A few days later their plants were in the compost bin - they were allowed to keep two pots.
What does this look like to you? To me, it looks like empty ground, ready to be planted. Instead, it is the ungarden.
The exquisite irony is that people pay me to design gardens.
I am sad. It is like a hole in me. I know I have a whole back garden to play in. As long as I close my eyes as I walk past this dereliction. I know there are worse things in our world. I know people are dying, in pain, suffering persecution, homelessness, unbearable loss. And we are poised on the brink of political Armageddon.
Perhaps that is why I am at such a loss. In the context of the constant bereavement of life, why must we suffer the loss of something that makes us and our neighbours feel better, in the light of the shitstorm to come?
There is no answer.