The view of my neighbor’s house from my front windows has pissed me off for years. It’s a 1950s ranch, which is not its real problem. I’ve lived in a few ranchers over the years and been happy – you can make them cute. But the offender on my current street is an unloved thing. Amidst a street of Craftsmen and storybook homes built in the 1920s, it looks a little like it’s crashing a Kentucky Derby party in a tight polyester pants suit. Beige asbestos siding, peeled country-blue shutter paint, cracked front steps and a tragic aluminum screened door that claps in the breeze. It’s not good.
I don’t know the owner, but I do know the house is a rental that can’t seem to keep occupants for more than a few months. Two haphazard front garden beds of invasive plants have died, one by one, over the years. When someone comes to “care” for the yard, this means the high grass is mowed quickly and left to rot in clumps. The latest dead plant is tossed into the back of the rusty truck on top of grass clippings.
Finally, about six months ago, there was nothing left in one bed but weeds and dirt. My next door neighbor (I’ll call her Sally) went over to weed it. The other bed, just beneath the living room window, was home to some jaundiced boxwoods. There wasn’t much she could do with those.
The whole of this house, from its single-paned windows to its listing chimney and waist-high backyard grass, was asking for help.
The place has been empty this time for months, a For Rent sign advertising its awesomeness – Great Neighborhood!—at the edge of the yard. My neighbors and I hold our breath, hoping someone will move in soon.
Two weeks ago the sky opened and delivered the gift of spectacular weather. A real, live bender. Since then, our street has been stoned out on Vitamin D and things in bloom.
A week into our sun blitz, I’d dug up several hostas and helliobores, intending to pot them up and donate them for our school plant sale. I pulled out the nandina (The owner before me had a real thing for plants from Asia). I set them out on the grass.
My plan was spontaneous. Mostly.
It was broad daylight. People were out mowing, raking, walking. I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and trundled my plants across the street. I set them out in a pattern I thought would work and planted them. I filled a watering can, added some fish emulsion, and soaked them. After that, I sat on my front steps and had a beer, watching over my guerilla garden.
The next day one of my neighbors (I’ll call her Dolores) said to me, “I saw you.” Dolores wagged her eyebrows.
“Oh really? When?” (Uh oh. Trespassing is bad. I knew I should’ve done it at night.)
“I’m so glad you did that, because I was just about to do the same thing!”
Dolores brought over a holly bush from her yard. Another neighbor (I’ll call her Martha) donated a Japanese maple. I mowed the grass twice when it got too high, and then decided to pay my son to do it. More plants showed up mysteriously. I planted them all, and the place was really beginning to look like someone loved it, at least a little. We were cooking with gas. A community of garden lovers taking matters into our own hands! Next stop, a coat of paint! A new door! Re-pointing the chimney!
Today I was working away at my desk, one eye on our new garden, thinking about when I’d get over there to water (Hooking our hose up to their spigot was definitely trespassing, John informed me. Also, the water was turned off).
Up pulled a beat-up pickup. Out came a weed whacker. A man with a cigarette drooping from his mouth attacked the yard. My son had just mowed. Mr. Cigarette mowed again anyway. Then he took out the plants (Our plants! Sally’s, Dolores’s, Martha’s and mine!) and threw them into a heap in the front yard.
I ran across the street, my hands in the air, demanding to know what his plan was.
He turned to look at me through goggles covered in wet grass flakes. “The guy’s paying me to take all this out. He says they’re dead.”
I pulled a leaf off one of the helliobores and showed it to him. “Do they look dead to you?”
“Well. No.” He looked over his shoulder at the boxwoods, already gone.
“Did someone buy the place? Or rent it?”
“I don’t know, Lady. I’m just getting paid to do the yard.”
“Did he rent it? He never calls back.” Even to my own ears I sounded pathetic.
“You want me to call him? I’ll call him. Then I can get back to work.” He dialed the phone, waited for an answer and fiddled with the handle of his weed whacker.
It’s true I’d been calling the number every few days, pretending to be a renter on the message so the owner would call me back. I’d just called again that morning.
On the other end the owner answered. “Um. Yeah. There’s some lady here who’s mad about the yard. She says she wants to talk to you.” He passed me the phone.
“Oh, hiii. I live across the street.” (Friendly. Check. Breezy. Check.) “You’ve got some guy here taking out all the plants? Because not all of them are dead, you know. (Oh dear. A little nasty.) I’m just hoping you aren’t planning to leave the beds bare? Like they’ve been for, you know, a few years?”
Traffic noise on the other end. A siren flaring and fading. “I don’t live in town. It’s hard to take care of.” A young guy. I’d heard he inherited the place from his mother.
Long pause. Another siren. “The last time I was there about a month ago everything was dead.”
This was the time to tell him NOT ANYMORE. Garden vigilantism is your new friend, Mister. But landscaping seemed a much bigger trespass than mowing. And I’d made rules about my methods, too, which suddenly seemed completely crazy. I didn’t MOVE any plants already there. I just added them. I didn’t sneak over at night; I gardened in the light of day. But it was too complicated to explain.
“You’ve really let it go,” I said. “Some of us in the neighborhood are mowing the front grass.”
He laughed. “Really? Cool.”
“Have you rented it out? Or are you selling it?”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve got a bunch of people looking at it.” (This was a lie. I live right here and no one has).
I asked what the rent was, and he told me. His inflated figure explained why no one wanted it: he was smoking crack. He’d never get that kind of money for the place.
“That seems like a lot.”
Radio silence. Some honking and a woman shouting.
“Could you just not leave the gardens bare?”
“Absolutely,” he said, then hung up.
I asked Mr. Cigarette to save the plants he’d dug up, and he said he would. “Could you put the boxwoods back in? They’re pretty healthy, don’t you think?”
“You gonna pay me?”
“You’re already being paid, aren’t you?”
“Just kidding. Never hurts to ask,” he said and lit another cigarette. “I’m supposed to go to Fred Meyer and get new plants. You got a problem with that?”
He looked at me through the smoke.
I should’ve stepped away. Let well enough alone. Transferred my energies to another cause. “Can I write down some plants that would be good?” I said. “I mean, if it’s all the same to you. If the owner doesn’t care. It seems like he doesn’t care.”
“Knock yourself out, Lady.”
I wanted to lurk around, making sure he’d be as good as his word, but I didn’t.
Later in the day, I checked to see what he’d done. The boxwoods had been replanted unevenly, like the person planting them was drunk. On the far end, the biggest one had its roots exposed and lay on the ground. Our plants, mine and Sally’s and Dolores’s and Martha’s, were all gone.
I’d lost. I told myself I’d gotten what I deserved for muscling a situation that wasn’t mine to steer.
Around nine in the evening my doorbell rang. On the front lawn stood Sally and Dolores. They were giggling, sharing a bottle of Tequila hidden inside a paper bag.
“We don’t know what the hell happened over there today,” Sally said. She gestured to the house across the street. “Somebody told us you were in the front yard with that gardener guy trying to save the plants.”
They laughed and offered me a drink. They said if we didn’t do something a bunch of hoodlums would break in and cook meth over there, or dismantle the place for the metal. Both scenarios are a pretty big stretch, but I admired their passion.
“He said he’d save them for me,” I said. “I guess he decided I was too insane.”
“Come with us. We have a present for you.”
They took me into Sally’s backyard, where all our plants sat in a wheelbarrow by the garage.
“We got these out of the trash can behind that house,” Dolores said. “Can you believe that asshole? Throwing away our plants?”
Sally chimed in. “Yeah. This is our neighborhood.” She took a swig of Tequila and offered some to me. “We figured you’d want to…you know…do something with them.”
Tequila’s not my friend, so I said no to that. But I’m up for gardening with my new posse. Anytime.