Tending to a garden takes work, but it’s worth it
A woman once told me about a couple in her neighborhood who constantly worked together in their garden, year after year perfecting their Eden—until the day they sold their home. The new owners quickly bulldozed the once-loved garden to build an addition. That tale of a suburban garden’s ruin has stuck with me for two decades. I think I know why.
I sometimes wonder if planting a garden, and spending time and money tending to it, is a sign of hope or foolishness. Is a well-loved garden an appreciation of nature or an arrogant, and ultimately futile, attempt to bend nature to one’s will? My husband and I treasure our suburban garden. We’re as happy gardening together as two kids playing in the mud. We especially like sitting together in our garden and enjoying how pretty and peaceful it is.
But I’ve gone to see the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, so I know how the story of man versus jungle sometimes ends. The famous complex was controlled over the centuries by successive religious groups. New caretakers sometimes obliterated from temple walls their predecessor’s images of gods—and replaced them with their own religious iconography. Nature ended the theological disagreements. Trees and vines grew over and through many of the temples, reducing roofs and walls to piles of rubble.
I think of Angkor Wat when I get busy and neglect to weed my garden for too long. Half the weeds I’ve pulled in my yard over the years are volunteers from one prolifically self-seeding honeysuckle that I inherited from a previous owner. I’ve long considered how to kill that large and invasive shrub without resorting to chemical warfare. Honeysuckle, it turns out, is like something from the movie Alien—a foreign invader that cannot be eradicated easily once it enters a human population.
Maybe, I tell my husband on days when we wear ourselves out working on some garden project, we should retire to a small apartment near a park so we can enjoy nature daily without weeding or mowing.
We won’t. We’ll likely stay. Among the many reasons why: our neighbors’ oak trees. We have more than 40 trees in our own yard; among them are beeches and tulip poplars, American hollies, a chestnut that survived a species-killing blight, and a young pin oak that I hope will someday dominate the back garden. But the couple that lives directly behind us has several magnificent mature oaks on their property, and some of them are right up against our back fence line.
My husband and I built a small round patio in a back corner of our garden to give us a better vantage point to enjoy our neighbors’ oaks. That patio, known to friends and family as the Zen Circle, is every visitor’s favorite place to sit in our garden. When my husband and I are alone, we sometimes lie flat on our backs on that patio and stare into the sheltering canopy of the neighbors’ oaks, letting their majesty be our joy and balm—our temple.
My neighborhood association devoted a lot of time to discussing trees in 2010-2011. Back then, Greenwich Forest was in the process of becoming a county-approved historic district, with certain protections for old houses and mature trees. Tree-lovers argued that the park-like canopy of neighborhood trees knit all our homes into a community ecosystem worth preserving. Some opponents, basically property rights advocates, argued that trees are prone to toppling or dropping branches on people and car windshields, and that homeowners have a right to launch preemptive strikes by cutting down trees on their own property. I understood the merits of both positions, but I sided, passionately, with the tree protectionists.
A few years later I was weeding near the back line of our property, pulling up evil honeysuckle seedlings, when I heard a crack like thunder. I looked up to see a telephone pole-size limb from one of my neighbors’ oaks hurtling toward me. I had no time to run, just to drop to the ground and cover my head with my arms. The heaviest part of the limb missed me by inches. I had to crawl about 10 feet to get out from under the network of secondary branches. Miraculously, I emerged unscathed. My wonderful neighbors were horrified, although my near miss was in no way their fault. I told them that I loved their oaks so much that a sudden death beneath one wasn’t the worst way I could think of to go. I did, however, ask my husband to promise that if a tree kills me he’ll nominate me for a Darwin Award and emblazon my tombstone: Here Lies a Tree-Hugger Felled by a Tree.
A few years ago a much smaller oak limb fell and landed directly on the Zen Circle, splintering the chair I usually sit in. I didn’t even tell the neighbors. My husband and I just rolled the limb off to one side and left it there. I planted delicately glossy ginger all around it, trying to create the pretty fiction of a garden that isn’t in conflict with nature.
This spring, my husband and I reduced the size of our lawn—yet again—and spent time and money deploying organic weed killer and reseeding the remaining grass. The result: Our lawn had never looked better. To give ourselves a respite from yard work, we hired someone to cut the lawn for us. They promptly chopped our newly renovated lawn so short that much of it died. We shrugged. A lawn, unfortunately, is still the primary crop of the suburban gardener. As any farmer can tell you, sometimes your crop just fails.
We labor on.
This summer, I plotted the demise of the evil honeysuckle, which had grown into a 20-foot-high monster with a central trunk 10 inches in diameter. I had to vanquish the alien—not just for me, but for the neighborhood. If I was wasting so much time yanking out unwanted honeysuckle seedlings, my neighbors probably were, too, but were too polite to complain.
I Googled “chainsaws sized for women.” I laughed to think what paroxysms that would cause in Google’s algorithms. Maybe ads would appear unbidden on my computer screen for an AR-15 in pink. Maybe the NRA would invite me to join. (Don’t waste your time NRA, the only gun I want is a glue gun.)
Instead of a chain saw, I bought a SKIL reciprocating saw with a 7.5 amp motor and a variable cutting speed. My husband asked me not to use the thing without a cellphone and a tourniquet nearby. I attacked the honeysuckle with such unrelenting zeal that I melted the blade of my new saw. My husband grabbed an ax and power drill to join the fight. I don’t know if we were working with nature or trying to bend her to our will. All I know is that as the honeysuckle fell, piece by piece, we were in the moment, laboring in our garden, and we felt happy.
Savoring victory, my husband and I dragged two teak steamer chairs to the spot where the honeysuckle had loomed. We sat there nightly after dinner. We’d watch birds fly home and bats appear as the light failed. We’d marvel at how lucky we are to live in a suburban forest.
One rainy night in July, we were just finishing dinner when we heard a thud. “Tree down,” I said as we bolted for the back door. Two trees were down, actually, and one of them—an ancient tulip poplar—had fallen directly on top of our chairs.
We returned to the safety of our kitchen. Dazed and grateful to be alive, I sat at the counter, head in hands, muttering: Oh my God, Oh my God. My husband turned on a jazz station and the first song to play was the Gershwin brothers’ “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” We laughed. “Henceforth,” my husband said when we finally stopped laughing, “to be known as the tree song.”
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.