Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Ungarden


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.


We shoveled our way out (no sign of the super. Fortunately I quite like shoveling; snow remains exotic, to me).

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 echinacea
2 amsonia
5 agastache
3 clary sage
numberless daylilies
2 hardy snapdragons
3 ornamental oregano
3 calamintha
5 late blooming alliums
3 spring alliums
1 lamb's ear
3 solidago
9 liatris
2 thyme

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.

______________________

61 comments:

  1. I love reading your lovely garden posts. I'm not a gardener but I love reading what you do and create out of seemingly nothingness. I'm so sorry you had to tear the heart out of your front garden. It sounds like it will be missed by many people every day.

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  2. Can't you challenge his decision? How about a petition by all the residents? Why does what one person say goes?

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    1. The one person owns the property. Not a battle I want.

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  3. This makes me sad. And to have it done to you, of all people. I'm so sorry.

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  4. I am sorry Marie. What you planted was beautiful.

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  5. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Oops, i said that before. it's still true. So sorry for your loss.

    One of the things i loved about NYC was all the tiny gardens. One less won't hurt the City, but it wasn't causing any harm, either.

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    1. Thank you, webb. Yeah, a small thing in the big world.

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  6. No! Landlords are the worst!
    Your ungardening reminded me of this beautiful NYT piece from earlier this year: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/opinion/sunday/my-mothers-garden.html?_r=0
    It may not bring you solace, but it's certainly worth a read.

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  7. Hard to take, I know.
    You mention a compost bin...not the landlord's, surely?

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    1. The city's. Our new super does not quite get the compost bin and tips the compost into black trash bags and puts them out with the ordinary trash.

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    2. Hmm - that behavior seems like a fine waiting to happen for his boss, your landlord. Cosmic justice, maybe, but bad for the city composting program, too... no winners there.

      Very sorry to hear about the front garden. Was there room for the front plants to bunk up with the back plants?

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    3. I moved the calamintha to the back as it can take shade. I potted some of these plants in the big pots that housed the roses (the roses were the losers). We'll see if they are allowed to stay.

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    4. Someone should anonymously report this guy on 311 for not shoveling snow or using the compost properly. If you were to fall on your way home (god forbid) you'd be the new owner.

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  8. I have seen similar episodes, hard to believe as it is,
    a few years ago we moved down to the sunny Okanagan into a newly developed townhome,
    The gardens HAD to be standardized? is that word.
    we weren't allowed to do our own planting, it was basic to say the least.
    A new older couple moved into the complex and took over as 'garden supervisors" as they were very knowledgeable like Marie.
    Ironically the st. was named Drought Hill with good reason.
    they planted out beautiful cascading pots of petunia's which transformed the place.
    you guessed it, a handful of miseries complained, 'they liked the 'natural' look, bare sand, rocks and weeds, I kid you not.
    so the gorgeous pots were removed and the old folk left, as did we...
    I think people like that have lost their soul.

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    Replies
    1. Drought Hill. Good title for a story.

      Sad story - I am sorry.

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  9. I've read through this twice & am crying. I so feel your loss, and I'm sorry this has happened to you. You nurture & love & curse & wait & then bees & butterflies & birds & even animals you don't want show up. You helped bring in that life, and it's "just some plants" to someone else. I am so so sorry.

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    1. Sorry, Liisa - didn't mean to make you that sad!

      But... it is sad. Right?

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  10. I am so sorry. Why people want to strip away beautiful things and leave bare ugliness behind baffles me.

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  11. complete heartache I am SO sorry

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  12. some people cannot see the beauty in the unsolicited or even in chance, not to mention the free gift of your time and labor and money.
    perhaps it is a misplaced faith in order? or peeing on a place to clearly mark one's turf?
    perhaps you can approach this from what is left? cloud pruning even harder first. a snuck in boxwood or daphne with time... and if unobserved then another flowering shrub.
    a game of what can i do that won't be noticed but will please my eyes.
    i'd have been so happy with what you did (and i am a landlord - though not yours).
    i find it odd that dry urban dirt is someones definition of "clean".
    if you are ever in the mindset to try again i'd bet there's a clean that would please him as a "client". but i totally get picking your battles.

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    1. A nice idea, Rick, but I'll do no more sneak planting. Thank you :-)

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  13. Well, the front garden looked so ALIVE and some people just can't handle all that untrammelled loveliness and life. It says a lot about them. 'Clean' indeed! It's an unpleasant example of power and control.

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  14. Sometimes there are no words...........but as a form of protest I would fill my window sills street side with glorious potted plants, and maybe get the neighbours to join in.

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  15. This is very sad, indeed. What could be done for a happier ending later on? This will be a formal question. First of all, you did the first right step, to do, what the super said, because planting without asking seems to have been the wrong way. Now, perhaps in two or three month you could officially ask him (in a letter) if you could plant something and perhaps make suggestions, what you want to do. Perhaps also with a plan. He will have to answer and perhaps you find solutions or more so, a compromise. It is always hard to live with people that feel completely different to you. But, it is constantly like that in life. The only way to overcome "political Armageddon" you speak about, is tolerance and constantly speaking to each other. Negotiate. And find a compromise.
    It never makes sense to say, others have lost their souls. Perhaps they have. Probably they just have a different soul.

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    1. I agree with you, but don't think I will try, in this case. I did say, that day - What can I do? And the answer was to take it all out. That is his right.

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  16. So sorry to hear this. But I have heard this odd interpretation of "clean" before. Some people seem to fear nature and abundance for some reason. It's a mystery to me. But look at all the expanses of sad, boring, but "clean" lawns that surround so many homes. I think some would even prefer Astroturf so they wouldn't even have to see soil. They find something threatening in nature. I'd say he was scared of your lovely garden. Poor guy.

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  17. Oh, Marie, I am so sorry. Another awful landlord! Your garden was exquisite. Such a stupid and painful loss to you and to everyone who enjoyed it.

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  18. That's just f***ed up Marie. That was one beautiful plot of life.

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  19. The first time reading your Blog Marie and I am so disheartened to hear this has happened. I visited New York this summer from the UK and fell in love. It is an awe inspiring place and city gardening was such an incredible sight to see. I really feel your disappointment and share the sadness in these events. The flowers that once accommodated it were all so beautiful. I cannot understand the mentally behind this supposed 'clean' look. I don't understand it at all. I hope they will once day change their mind and will appreciate the happiness and solace that comes from a garden.

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  20. How devastating. How updating for you. What a loss of a beautiful garden created with such passion and excitement. I am further more at a loss for words that idiots like that manage to live with themselves and sleep at night. Is there anyone out there reading this that can offer a solution? Ek wil sommer vir jou part vloek maar ek sal maar weerhou. Hoop iemand skud sy breinselle los.

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  21. Marie ~

    My heart breaks for you, again. And again. And once again.

    You, who are one of the great gardeners, especially of accidental spaces.

    But you are also very strong. Certainly stronger than they are.

    x x x

    ~ Abbie

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  22. I am so sorry to hear this. I have been following your blog and enjoy your garden adventures. I am a gardener too and appreciate when barren space like that can be planted with living things. I don't know why the landlord did that. Perhaps it reflects how he feels inside? At least for that brief space in time you and your neighbours had a bit of Eden in that barren place.

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  23. Marie, my heart breaks for you. It is a loss, maybe not on the level of the tragedies going on around the world, but please don't diminish your own feelings and hard work. We all need hope, and beauty, and steady signs of life in our daily lives. As I told Vince on his blog a few years ago when you lived in that cold place, I totally see in my mind's eye the two of you having a place just outside the city with real NY dirt (historically, it was incredibly bountiful land) with space and sun to create your own sanctuary, similar to your mother's South African garden and with your own unique touch. And, maybe with a new black cat to keep you company? I take this as a sign for you two to make that leap of faith for a future. With best wishes.

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  24. Sigh.... why, indeed. Both the irony and senselessness leaves me with a heavy heart.

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  25. That would just break my heart. It doesn't look clean, it looks barren and sad. He had all that beauty at no expense and trouble to himself.

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    1. It did break my heart, in a very quiet way.

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  26. The world is a cruel place. You bring beauty to it in so many ways. Garden on, Marie!

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  27. This makes me so sad. It was beautiful, cared for, and probably upped the value of the property - I'm surprised he didn't raise your rent. I'm sorry and hope the plants found new homes.

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    1. We are very happy our rent wasn't raised in year 2. I planted some of the plants in pots, some in the back garden...

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    2. shhhh...Marie, don't give them any ideas...
      I feel with you, Marie. Frustration and anger first, then sadness. And maybe another move ahead. It takes my breath, just thinking about it.

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  28. So sorry. The new super sounds like a dick >:-(

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    1. I think the previous super was. The new one just doesn't understand the compost :-)

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  29. Oh no. I'm so sorry. I'm so sick of small-minded property owners 'making things neat' in our NJ suburb by cutting down mature plant material that they don't understand.

    I removed our front lawn years ago and planted a riot of perennials and a couple shrubs. I've seen people walk in the street in front of our house instead of using the sidewalk because our yard has so many bees. I secretly smile when I see that.

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    1. Sounds wonderful, Brian... I was so happy to see bees and butterflies.

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  30. As a landlord, I am thrilled when tenants garden. A. I love gardens, and B. It adds curb appeal which equals equity. I live in Southern Oregon, but would like to point out that your landlord sucks! Thank you for doing what you do.

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  31. So much sadness for you and your loss. I'm so sorry.

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  32. My apologies if this comment turns up twice; it just disappeared for no reason, so it might come back for no reason too.

    So, so sorry. Like everyone else who has commented here, I just don't understand needlessly killing living beauty, especially something created with such loving care.

    But I have a practical question. What is going to happen when it rains? This is dirt. It will be mud. And in spring, when the snow melts? Big mud. That sounds not only ugly, but like a lot of work for someone, which doesn't seem very well thought out. Also, does your landlord live in the neighborhood? Is it likely that friends might begin to ask him what happened to the lovely garden that was in front of his rental this year? And what is he planning on replacing it with? (And then shudder when they hear nothing or gravel or something "clean" ...)

    That's all probably pointless to ask, but I'm still trying to understand how this happened. For the moment, am just going to hope that for whatever reason (anything will do), he changes his mind. And hope for the best for you.

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    1. Well, whatever wasn't here wasn't here years before me, so yes: dust, mud, dust, mud. Another irony is that the lead that is in this city soil blows around when unchecked by plant cover, so removing plants makes more of it available. Yum.

      The garden wasn't really visible from the street, because I stopped well short of the sidewalk fence - I doubt anyone would miss it unless they were really paying attention.

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    2. Then once again, my sympathies. :(

      PS I can't imagine what Estorbo would have said about this, but I'm sure it would have been impressive.

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  34. i have a similar sad story but have to catch the train. it hurts always. it will be two years in october and it still hurts. more later

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  35. This must be what his heart and soul look like, barren. How sad that beauty and joy aren't part of his life and that he doesn't want it. I'm sorry about your garden.

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  36. Breaks my hart. So sorry you had to cross paths with one of the unenlightened. I meet them everyday in buidling projects, that little strip of green that is overexposed in the permit application and somehow becomes inconvenient and is erased from plans in the build phase. I try to show the neighbour s kids how much fun a little bit of wildness can be, here in suburbia with clean-shaven carpets and gravel landing strips galore. Fruits and flowers, shrubbery and unkempt corners where adventure can be found for the three year legged child.

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  37. I can't bring myself to publicly say what I really think ... about the world we live in and what feels like the majority of it's inhabitants (your landlord and super camped in that crowd) but it does my tender heart so much good to know people like you - so thank you Sweet Marie ! xoxo Susan & les Gang

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  38. Your garden was beautiful. This man has no soul, these are the sorts of people who concrete gardens. So sorry you had to tear it out, that would kill me as a gardener, and then to continue to have to view the devastation from your bedroom would hurt! Take solace in the beautiful garden you are creating in your backyard.

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