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The Non-Expert

Midnight in the Garden of Wood and Evil

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we address a reader’s concern about her plant’s feelings with stories about menacing shrubs.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: Dear TMN: I’m an inexpert gardener myself and enjoy Jessica Francis Kane’s Notes From the Lawn series. Sometimes, though, I wonder about the poor plants, the laboratory mice of our dallying in the garden. How do they feel? A friend of mine talks to her plants. Should I be worried?

Possibly guilty of garden torture,
Ann B.

Answer: Dear Ann: Thanks for writing! I worry, too. My grandmother used to pet her plants, but she also wore nylons in the summer, so she was obviously given to extremes. I thought everything was probably okay—until recently. Two weeks ago I found the following letter in my mailbox:

Dear Homeowner (or do you just rent? I’ve never been sure),

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been away. You’ve been pretty busy with the new baby, so I thought it would be a good time to take a vacation. If you’d buy curtains for the front windows, I could leave more often, actually, which might improve our relationship. I’d feel more comfortable if I were not your only privacy barrier. And you’d probably like it if your privet hedge were not around all the time, growing out of control, reminding you of how far behind you are on the yard work.

So I went to the Hamptons. My shape was too embarrassing to go out much during the day, so I mostly stayed in my room and showered. Every few hours I’d go out to get some sun by the pool, but, invariably, someone would dump his drink in me. At night, when all the other privet was cool and sheathed in mist, I’d slink out in my dry leaves and see what was up. It was hard. I felt so unfashionable, so unpruned. A debutante not bikini-ready.

Still, I learned a lot. First off, speaking of privacy, which I know you consider my main job, I could be much taller. Don’t blame the red clay soil down here for the fact that I’ve never gotten past four feet. I saw legions of gardeners throwing fertilizer at the roots of gods, privet standing eight, nine, ten feet tall! I don’t know what it’s called, the gardeners were all speaking Spanish, but I’m sure you could find out. And would it kill you to entertain once in a while? Privet was clearly cultivated to be a barrier between the haves and the have-nots, but what boundary do I establish? The space between the have-nots and the REALLY-have-nots? Is that the best we can do? I’m not asking for golf courses or gazebos, just a little cocktail party now and then. (And beer, even Stella Artois, in that old Styrofoam cooler doesn’t count.) It would help a hedge hold her head up. With proper care, I could grow thick enough to hold your wineglass. And a small plate of canapés.

Instead, I’m weedy and exhausted. Every time it rains I sag and break a branch. I’m full of vines and at the corner by the telephone pole there’s some poison ivy starting, Mrs. I-can’t-use-herbicides-because-of-the-baby. Oh, and the cardinal’s nest that was your last excuse not to prune has been empty for three weeks. The cat across the street got them. You think I like that? You think that makes me happy? What am I supposed to do? I’m growing into some kind of a tree here!

But if you don’t care, why don’t we just end this charade right now? Rip me out and plant a fence already. I’m sure it’ll look just as pretty strung with Christmas lights.

Privet (the hedge along the street; that’s BOXWOOD between the houses)

It would be bad enough enduring correspondence from my privet. But then, a few days later, I received this:


Proon the hedge are we stop blooming.

The Pink Fairies

Aside from the fact that one might have guessed the rose hybrid would have more facility with spelling and grammar than Ligustrum Vulgare (common privet), it’s alarming to think of them working in unison. It’s true I’ve always found time to prune the roses, but that is because they will bloom twice—once in early summer and then again in late summer—if you trim them back. Pruning the privet, in contrast, is merely a Sisyphean task.

I didn’t respond. Then, a few nights ago, I was awoken by a strange sound, an insistent rustling I thought at first was rain. I got out of bed and went downstairs, following the sound to the front of the house. When I stepped off the porch, I had quite a shock. The azaleas, a bank beneath my study window that is the pride and joy of my spring garden, seemed to be…rearranging themselves. With absolutely no consideration for color! I was horrified, particularly as I had just paid a professional to prune them. (Like forsythia, azaleas are notoriously difficult. You should never take a hedge clipper to them.)

The betrayal was painful to bear, and, indeed, the next morning there was another note:

Dear Mrs. Kane,

We have reconsidered our position. In light of the recent (and we might add, delightful) hand pruning, we will take no further action. But please consider yourself warned. We don’t take lightly the needs and concerns of the other plants, even the ones from the North you insist on planting here.

The Azalea League

Ann, I offer all this as a cautionary tale. Take heed! The plants are craftier than we think, and, let’s not forget, mobile. The privet, in fact, appears to be encroaching on the house. My husband says I’m imagining it, he says the heat and humidity are just getting to me, the way they do every summer about this time. But I don’t think so. The shadow of the privet seems to reach just a bit closer each morning and yesterday I found an unusually long thorn laid conspicuously across the front mat. This explains the clicking I’ve heard from the rose garden at dusk—unmistakably the sharpening of points. I’m going out this morning to look around. If after several days you’ve heard nothing from me, you will know the truth.

My best,


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