Notes From the Lawn

Leaving Charlottesville

Departing the (garden) lovers’ state for one that loves its cement and money more, our scribbler of the lillies Our writer realizes the crucial difference between caring about plants and caring for them.

Last March, I started planning a tribute to an elderly neighbor. Using his old-fashioned methods and no early hybrids, I was going to grow a ripe tomato by the Fourth of July. I started seedlings indoors and put the plants in the ground at the end of May. After one good day, they were all but killed by the last two cold nights of spring.

I avoided the last frost date; that was not the problem. Those two nights were chilly, but not officially frosty. Where I went wrong was succumbing to my daughter’s enthusiasm. Having picked the day to put the seedlings in the garden, I could not deter her when I realized I should have acclimated them before planting. You’re supposed to take them outside during the day, then bring them back in at night. For a week. (And if you think this sounds like too much work for a bunch of flimsy plants barely one-inch tall, I agree with you.) My daughter, who is four-and-a-half and has never willingly worn mittens, was ready and waiting, gardening gloves on. It’s the end of May, I thought. How tough can it be for the seedlings? Apparently pretty tough. First they blanched, then they collapsed. Practically held their hands to their foreheads.

I revived a few, but their trauma must have lingered because the Fourth of July came and went without a tomato.

The plants are producing fruit now, grudgingly, but a wild beast of some kind is eating the almost red ones before I can pick them. No doubt there are any number of deterrents—physical, chemical, organic—that would keep him away, but when I began gardening, I promised myself I would not fight pests, insect or animal. It just seems like too much. My grandmother, who wanted desperately to grow rhododendrons in the woods of Connecticut, spent a great deal of her time and energy fighting off deer, for whom the plant is a delicacy. She read somewhere that if you sprayed a strip of cloth with hairspray and tied it on the plant the deer would stay away. Eventually you couldn’t see her rhododendrons for all the ghostly white strips of cloth hanging limp in the gloaming. For back up, she circled every plant with dried ox blood. At some point I think it’s fair to ask: When does a garden cease to be a garden?

But clearly I ask too much. This summer’s tomato fiasco has forced me to conclude that I have the gene that allows me to care about plants, but not the one that allows me to care for them. The patience and discipline required to maintain a garden, particularly in the summer, are not strengths I possess. It’s no wonder England is a country of gardeners. It’s delightful to work in the pleasant temperatures of spring and fall, but when the heat, humidity and mosquitoes of a Virginia summer set in? By then, I can only garden if I tell myself I’m not going to garden. I trick myself into believing I’m only going to weed one row or one bed, but once I’m involved I usually end up doing more.

I invented something called the Redeemable Element Game. On every block, wherever you go, try to find something redeemable. Still, how many times can this work? How often can you plan to trick yourself before you become a little unstable? Real gardeners must not operate this way, I believed, though Katherine White gardened in her street clothes, allegedly refusing to “dress down” to the flowers. I wonder if the real reason didn’t have something to do with the desire not to admit she was going to dive in. By August, it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing. I can sit inside my air-conditioned house and watch any number of atrocities happening in the garden and feel almost no remorse.

Thus I am not too sad to be moving to New York City later this month. We’ll be there for a year, under the auspices of a couple of benevolent universities. It’s a series of visiting professorships, but we’re calling it an adventure, and I am delighted at the prospect of surrendering our small private space for a whole lot of public space. I know the public space won’t always be as clean or as empty as I’d like, but neither will I be responsible for the weeding or leaf pickup. My opinion on the matter might change, but at the moment I’m pretty sure I’m getting a bargain.

The other truth is this: Although I’ve loved my garden, I have not always loved my town. In the early days here, despairing at the lack of anything to hang a walk on, I invented something I called the Redeemable Element Game. Here are the rules: On every block, wherever you go, try to find something redeemable, not in the sense of cashing it in for something (unless that something is sanity, I suppose), but redeemable as in the only worthwhile element before you, the only thing in your field of vision that you actually like in the otherwise undistinguished suburban landscape.

And so I found the pink Cadillac always parked in the same spot on the hill near the law school; the corner where I always smell cigarette smoke, though I’ve never seen anyone smoking; the allotment in my neighborhood where one woman grows corn and zinnias; the backyard where a family keeps four chickens in a pretty coop beneath a white oak; the patch of pink phlox under the railroad bridge by the Econo Lodge; the café downtown where, if you sit with your back to the front door, it feels like Seattle; the wine bar downtown where, if you sit with your back to the door, it feels like Manhattan.

It’s a desperate game, no question. But if you don’t like where you live, it can help. Five years later, there are things I’m going to miss.

A few weeks ago my husband and I went to a going away party for a couple who are selling the house where they’ve lived for 30 years, the home in which they raised their children. It was billed as the last whiskey sour party, making me wish I’d been there for the first. The new owners of the house had come, so had dozens of friends and neighbors. I talked to the hosts about their move, but I couldn’t find the sadness I expected. The house and garden had become too much for them, they said, and they were ready for the next adventure. That’s all.

I feel exactly the same way.

And now that I’m leaving, I have an admission. On the matter of residential wind chimes, I’ve changed my opinion. I am unconditionally for them, and will miss the set on my neighbor’s porch. I hope she enjoys her tomatoes before the beast from our yard realizes we’re gone.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane