Part of my daily routine is walking back and forth from my house to the coffee shop where I write. It’s not quite a mile. Along the way, I pass through my neighborhood, a discount shopping center, a gas station, a dojo, a church, a residential street, a credit union, a bar, a sewing machine repair shop, and a dentist. There’s a little bit of everything. The gardens are what I like best.
There is a drought on in my part of the world. It’s been called the worst drought in over 1200 years, based on dendrochronology. Plants feel it first. There are definitely a lot of yellow and brown lawns along my garden walk – and I don’t blame them. The drought affects everyone and it’s out of our control.
There are a few green lawns still to see. Grass lawns are silly and very boring, in my opinion, but lots of people like them. Others keep their lawns green and manicured because they’re afraid that doing anything different would affect the curb appeal and market value of their houses. Everyone has a lawn because everyone else has a lawn. They have a point. I’ve never owned a home or dealt with home owner association rules. I don’t know how hard I would push or what I would pay to replace a lawn of my own with something more adventurous.
There are several non-grass yards along my path: Hard-packed dirt; a rock garden; a couple of patios that make half the front yard into an extra living room; a variety of carefully cultivated flower gardens. You can make certain educated guesses about the occupants. The house with the reel mower leaning against the wall has either someone physically active, frugal, or ecologically minded. The house with the cheery scarecrows has someone friendly. The riotous flower gardens take a lot of work. I like to think that people who grow a lot of flowers in their front yards are making an effort to share their beauty with anyone who wants to look.
One evening, as I was walking home, I saw an elderly Asian couple stooping in the gutter in front of their house. What were they doing? I saw that they were using cut-off milk jugs to scrape at a trickle of water in the gutter, and bailing it into a bucket. They had to be in their 60s at least but they were crouching and making a serious physical effort to save as much water as they could. It hit me in the gut. They were living a cultural value that my nearer neighbor, whose sprinklers spray past the sidewalk every day, might not fully understand. As I walked on, three or four houses further along, I saw Hollyhock Man and a little boy hand-watering flowers in front of their house with graywater buckets. The slight trickle from those buckets was flowing down to be painstakingly preserved by that older couple. I felt a sense that all of us were working together and doing our best to fight tough conditions. It’s hard to describe that neighborly allegiance: a warm, comforting feeling one doesn’t often encounter.
When I see a weedy, neglected yard, I guess that the house may be vacant or the occupants may be elderly or ill. It doesn’t seem intentional. When I see a very plain lawn, I figure the occupant cares about conforming to expectations enough to maintain a base aesthetic level. It’s the polo-shirt-and-khakis yard. When I see thousands of flower blossoms, I enjoy them – the colors, the fragrances, and often the friendly smiles and waves of the gardeners who make them happen. They make me want to learn what they know and have my own explosively lovely garden one day.
Social comparison can be poisonous. I might look at someone’s jasmine or bougainvillea and assume that they inherited a green thumb or a bunch of money. I might see a row of rosebushes and decide that their owner was superficial or vain or shallow. I might feel pressured, as though everyone in the neighborhood was casting side-eye at my yard and gossiping about how much better it could look and how I was really letting it go. I might even decide that nobody should have flowers because it makes other people feel insecure. Or, I could relax and remember that flowers grow according to their own schedule. I could ask the master gardeners in my neighborhood to tell me about their work. Maybe I’d find that gardeners are incredibly generous with their advice and tools and seeds and cuttings. I could focus on my own garden and pull my own weeds. I could wait to see how it improves with effort and attention and time.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.