In the first days after I move in, I read books on garden design. In the previous months, I worked extra jobs like a demon to get the money to move, and it’s as if the effort has burned off all desire for conversation. I stay in, read my books, and make calls only when I need to, from a pay phone. When I am questioned by police, who suspect I’m a drug dealer, I get a line installed, but it feels like a concession.
The books all agree that proper gardens are planned to be different in every season, and seem to advise against the garden from my vision. The spring garden should have early color; the summer garden, a circus of full blooms; the fall, a harvest of deeper shades. The winter garden is a shape under the snow, or evergreens and the occasional mahogany red of a rose cane. Many gardeners try to match the colors and ground types and sun exposures; others compose with the scents in mind, as well, in the manner of a perfumer. One book instructs on how to layer bulbs at different depths, so that the crocus is replaced by the tulip, then the lily, the iris, the canna, and so on, with a last set of lilies to emerge in the fall. Some are planted to be seen at night, with fragrances only in the evening. Too much of a single variety, the books warn, will make the garden dull outside the season of the chosen plant’s blooming, and draw a dense number of pests.
I make my plan, sketching out a garden I do not want, and then my original idea asserts itself.
“I am planting a rose garden,” I tell a friend at what I chose as my local bar shortly after moving in, testing out saying it. It is January, dark and cold.
“Do you have a lot of sunlight?” he asks me.
“Yes,” I lie, unsure.
The next day I don’t have to work, and so I stay home all day and watch the sun move across the ground. One of the books recommends keeping a garden diary, tracking the sunlight exposures, the rains, the seasons starting and ending, and so I do. I record the first sunlight hitting my windows at seven-thirty and touching the ground in the back around eight. The sun leaves the last patch of dirt at 4 P.M. All roses, a guidebook said, need a good six hours of sunlight. I have more than enough, and the summer promised to have even more. The next morning, I turn back to my record of the sunlight and begin another entry.
The center of this block is an “H” of adjoining yards, variously planted and tended or, as in the yard on my right, abandoned. By spring, it will be clear that the bare wintry trees in the back will remain like this all year. The only living tree is a silvery magnolia, still dormant and inexplicably alive amid its dead cousins. “They were root-poisoned by the landlord,” my neighbor says when she emerges one day and introduces herself. Their taproots had endangered the pipes and foundations of the buildings. My neighbor is a young woman, roughly my age, living off of Social Security Disability Insurance due to AIDS, she tells me. I like her right away. She is new also, and almost always at home. She has plans for a lawn and a vegetable garden, and keeps a compost pile in the back corner of her yard, but she worries about the poison in the ground. “I’m testing the soil,” she says. “You should, too.”
The yard to my right is all trash bags of dead plants, an old bicycle, and a smashed fence, and is home to feral yard cats, a mother cat and her new brood. The three yards, my young neighbor’s, mine, and the abandoned one, are like variations on the theme of habitation: my neighbor’s yard is the neat one; mine, half spoiled; the last, a ruin. What appear to be metal ladders ascend from the yards, several stories high, notched with pulleys to hold laundry lines, strung over the yards with panties and sheets and towels hung to dry. Occasionally a sock or a panty falls into my garden. No one ever comes to ask for them, and, eventually, I throw them away. The only other neighbor I see for the first few months is an older woman opposite me, her hair a combed and brassy hat, who occasionally appears and leaves large metal bowls of cat food for the yard cats, who tumble nightly through my garden in yowling fights.
A good place to begin a garden is to undo the mistakes of previous owners. I tear up a stone walk, which occupies patches of ground feasting on sunlight. The mother cat, nursing her kittens, looks at me as if she has seen this happen before. I make a figure-eight path, irregular in the manner of handwriting, hollowing out the spaces for the stones before I water them into place and hop on them as they set.
My neighbor and I have conversations over our fence, each of us standing on a bench. We talk about getting the yard cats adopted. The tomcat suitors of the mother cat pass through the missing teeth of the fence at a high run, and we discuss whether repairing the fence will slow them down. She is also concerned about which pesticides and fertilizers I will use. I assure her I will not use chemicals without consulting her. She tells me she has planted dandelions, and I studiously do not laugh at her, instead quietly remembering summers spent pulling them out of my mother’s yard.