Gardening skills can be borrowed just like a cup of flour

My kaddish collaborator has sent me the dearest little bucket of brightly-colored plastic aleph-beit refrigerator magnets for Christmas, and since I need to write my thanks properly in ink on a dead-tree product, she revealed to me her street address. She mentioned that if I googled the address and used street view, I would see…

…which I did, of course. I discovered that I know her neighborhood quite well, because I used to live a few neighborhoods away and visited hers regularly…

…but this is supposed to be a story about gardening.

My point is that I told her, when she googled my old address, to take note of a sad little shrub in front of the house. I wanted to tell her this story about its glory days and the brief moment in my life when I had gardening skills.

When The Chef and I moved in, all those autumns ago, it was an enormous hulk of a fallen-over mystery bush. Near the end of winter, when it finally stopped raining, a surprisingly warm afternoon found me so tired of having to walk around that mess that I finally grabbed the barbaric giant scissors I found in the garage and went to work.

Hack, hack, hack, hack, hack. So that I could see what I was doing, I flopped it back upright over the banister and kind of spread it out, and hack, hack, hack, hack. Finally I got it thinned down enough to think it had a chance of supporting its own weight.

It had been flopped over so long, though, I figured it would need some help. I found some twine to fan out over the stucco, and I wove strategically chosen branches through the strings. I kept hacking and stringing, with no particular plan or competency, until I thought the poor thing might actually stay upright. Whatever it was.

By now several hours had gone by, and thorns of the slain beast had shredded my arms, shoulders, face. I looked like I’d lost a fight with a wet cat, and I was dirty and sweaty.

Which is when the woman with the shock of gorgeously silvering hair from across the street wandered over to say hello—but what she said first was, “You’ve done a beautiful job of espaliering that bouganvillea! It’s going to be glorious when it starts to blossom.”

I asked the attractive woman her name (Veronica!), mumbled my own, wished I looked less catastrophically catastrophic, and then asked her to translate whatever it was she had just said to me. I hadn’t understood any of it.

She cracked up and explained that the bush was a bouganvillea and would be displaying beautiful magenta blossoms in a few weeks. And what I had done—entirely by accident, I swore then and reiterate now—was a time-honored method of managing bouganvilleas by splaying them out and training them to climb up walls.

She said I had actually done it quite well. The murderously brutal surgery I had performed was exactly what it needed, and although wire was more common, my fan of strings was the usual way to get an espalier started.

I admitted that I had no idea what kind of bush it was, and I didn’t have the first clue about bouganvilleas. (I grew up in the snow belt. What did I know about Mediterranean plants?) I had no idea that it was traditional to espalier them, nor even that there was such a word. I must have seen it done somewhere, but really I was just trying to get the damned thing to be vertical again. Since I also didn’t know the first thing about pruning, I figured I had probably killed it and I’d soon be using the barbaric giant scissors to cut dead vines and strings off our staircase.

She chuckled through my confession. At some point during my tale she reached over to wipe a bit of blood off my shredded shoulder with a spit-dampened thumb. It was the sort of half-conscious gesture a mom makes—or daughter of an aging mom, I eventually learned. She probably didn’t realize she did it. Or perhaps she did, and this shouldn’t be a story about gardening. But it is.

She patiently explained to me all about “bougs,” as she called them. How they need ruthless pruning, the more barbaric the better. How and why they’re traditionally espaliered—something about the more sunlight the better, I think. How you see bougs crawling up all the houses in Spain and Portugal (aha! that’s where I’d seen it done—in Lisboa, which I’d visited five years earlier on a business trip!). How this boug wouldn’t need any watering; that its annual winter soaking would be plenty to get it through our foggy summer.

Veronica was right. A few weeks later, The Boug was a riot of magenta.

It took a while to reform The Boug’s slouching ways, so every so often I would be back out there with my string and my screwdriver and the giant barbaric scissors.

My combatant was a worthy adversary, always extracting its share of my blood while I hacked away at it. I learned to wear heavier, longer-sleeved shirts for these skirmishes, but The Boug sharpened its thorns and remained undaunted. As I bled over my labors, the neighbors would wander over to say hi, and that is how over the next several years I got to know Veronica and her mother from across the street—and the creaky, squeaky woman next door whose brain managed to hang onto a vast knowledge of gardening even as all the rest of her marbles rolled away.

I grew fond of Crazy Lady during our growing-season chats. Occasionally her social needs were inconvenient, but she always seemed genuinely delighted to greet me and tell me the latest battle in her war with the redwood behind my house—how its cones and needles littered her backyard, mainly, but also something else I never quite managed to follow that had to do with space aliens and that giant tree’s service as their antenna. I found that it was best to smile a lot and wait for her to circle back around to the things I saw on our planet.

She, too, was generous with her plant wisdom. It was she who encouraged me to weed-whack the little area to the right of The Boug and scatter a packet of wildflower seeds she plucked out of her apron and handed me.

It wasn’t my patch to garden, though—it was over the property line, on Boo Radley’s lot, fronting his ramshackle barn that we hoped wouldn’t fall over onto our rental house. Boo’s unkempt weeds were an eyesore stealing The Boug’s spotlight.

But I did as she said. I surreptitiously weed-whacked while Boo slept one off, and then I nonchalantly waved the packet over the stubble. For a few weeks I had bad aim when I rinsed off my stucco with the garden hose I’d found out back.

Sure enough, the snail-infested weed thicket was soon transformed into a colorful, tiny meadow. It was just the right thing to do with that funny space that wasn’t mine: lovely, accidental, nature’s spontaneous victory over dilapidation. Genius, that Crazy Lady.

Boo Radley must have died finally, because I see now in Google street view that the house has been propped up. Our little guerilla meadow is a tidy, deliberate-looking gardenlet now. Crazy Lady’s house looks the same, and if she’s gone off with the space aliens by now, at least I know she’s happy that her birds of paradise out front are their same outrageous selves.

When I bought my house in Montclair a few years later, I brought along to the East Bay a small cutting of The Boug, which had by then climbed all over that staircase. We, too, had become friends. I planted it in the sunniest spot I could find, but it was no use. The Boug had not agreed to move with me.

Nor had, would it seem, any gardening skills. They must have been on loan from Veronica and Crazy Lady, just while I was their neighbor. Since moving here I have killed not only Boug, Jr. but a set of rhubarb roots, two and a half dwarf Meyer lemon trees, a Eureka lemon treeling, an extravagantly flamboyant spider plant, a mother-in-law’s tongue, and dozens of pots of herbs. The spider plant might have been my cat’s fault.

The only plant to survive my malevolent neglect thus far is a potted jade tree. I’d managed to keep this cutting from my mom’s magnificent jade tree alive since my junior year in college, in five cities and eight dwellings. After taking up residence in Montclair, though, it began to droop and mold. I moved it from room to room, trying to find a spot with enough sunlight to cheer it back up, to no avail. It died.

Too busy to deal with depotting its shriveled corpse, I moved the pot out onto the front deck and forgot about it.

Over the next several years, though, a sprout volunteered from that jade’s grave and decided it liked Oakland. It grew tall and stout, and it edged its leaves in red.

Silly Northerner that I am, I’d thought it was a green, indoor plant.

But, no. Little Jade knew better. It lives on, joyful to be living outside at last, in a forest, where it knows it belongs.