The Unlovable Garden
by Julie Carpenter
I have had and loved many gardens, from my very first back yard in Memphis, where my boxer dug up the plum trees and ate half my climbing roses, to the haunted hillbilly house where we didn’t need curtains in spring because the wisteria draped itself in billows from the big oak tree out front. But I had one garden that, if I’m being honest, was hard to love.
The garden in question was in the Atlanta metro area, in Suwanee. We'd moved there from a big house in Memphis, TN, where I had azaleas, and roses, and fruit trees, and poppies. I'd spent years gardening in the big back yard. It was just starting to look like a mature garden when we had to leave.
The new house in Atlanta had a lot less potential. To put it kindly. The front yard was a hill that tumbled down and met the road - which ran down an even steeper hill that slid right down to the woods by the river. Once a couple of soda bottles rolled out of the back of the minivan. Pleased with their escape they darted down the driveway, turned the corner and raced a quarter mile to the bottom of the neighborhood and right into the woods as I chased them -out of breath and looking like the neighborhood weirdo, no doubt. Honestly, I love hills, so that part wasn't so bad. But the house itself wasn't exactly my style.
It was a cookie-cutter home, garage in the front - like all the other houses in neighborhood full of stamped out houses. All had small back yards and HOA regulated front yards. (I once got a warning from the HOA because a naughty vine slipped under the fence and dared to make a pumpkin on the wrong side, taunting our Homeowner's Association President with its very existence! The nerve!).
The back yard was small, with a square of concrete just outside the sliding glass doors and a heavy, twelve to fifteen foot retaining wall forming a solid boundary at the back of the the little plot. That wall of blackened railroad ties was the view from the kitchen window. Above it, the narrow area between the retaining wall and the back neighbor’s fence was wooded and scrubby. A garden it was not. At least not when we got there.
Of course, this begs the question. How did I come to choose this house? This garden? The explanation isn’t a rational one, but I’ll try to explain. I’d seen three- or four-days’ worth of houses and we didn't have much time. This was in the Atlanta area where the first pre-requisite for a house is proximity to work. Most of the houses I looked at in the area close to my husband's job were similar - cookie cutter, HOA, small yards. I was pregnant , tired and hormonal. This house was new so we could move right in without waiting for anyone to move out.
On the day I looked at the house with the terrible garden, I walked into the kitchen and the rain started pouring down outside. Rivers of water, lightning and thunder. The water poured from the top of the hill and flooded over the sturdy retaining wall. For some reason, at that moment, with thunder snapping and the waterfall of rain outside, I felt the house wrap around me like a nest. The blocky wall and hill with the scrubby provided privacy. It made the house feel sturdy and protected. As I watched rivulets of rain flow over wall, and off the roof, while I stood there, warm and dry, I momentarily felt like a mouse in blackberry thicket, on the run from a cat. Safe. Protected by the earth around me. I had a sudden feeling that I couldn't go any farther. That brief moment of shelter flipped a switch in my pregnant brain. Hormones are powerful things. We bought the house.
It was only after I moved in that I realized my mistake. In the rain, the fortress-like retaining wall had seemed comforting. In the dazzling Atlanta sun it reflected heat like the back of an oven. The wall, like the house, was new and still smelled like burning tar. We added a privacy fence which did not magically transform the yard into my dream garden. Instead it morphed into a giant wooden box. At least it was a secluded wooden box. Sigh. We moved into the house in May and my daughter wasn’t born until November. During the intervening months I had plenty of time to regret my choice. I could barely tie my shoes much less plant anything, although I filled up a few pots and talked my husband into digging holes for some small shrubs next to the house. My boxer dug a hole for dust baths in the corner and that was the extent of our gardening that summer. Never once after I moved in did I feel the same sense of respite and shelter I'd experienced when looking at the house.
A few weeks after my youngest daughter was born - still not feeling well, extremely hormonal, and more cranky than ever, I decided I had had enough. Either my view would improve or I would run screaming from the house never to return. My friend Kathy stayed inside to watch the baby, and I climbed the side yard the top of the wall, hacked out briars and scrub and planted a huge row of climbing roses. I dug out earth and dragged bags of manure up that godawful hill. I planted about a dozen bare root white Meidiland roses and begged them to do the right thing and tumble down that horrible wall, just to cover it up a little.
I put in a bird feeder. I planted butterfly bushes all along the sunny side of the privacy fence. I placed more plants on the foundation. I made a bed for wildflowers and chrysanthemums. I planted the obstreperous pumpkins. But everything I did in that garden was to mitigate it, to make it quit hurting my eyes when I looked at it. My efforts were geared not towards making it beloved; my only goal was to make it slightly less awful. I held a grudge against that yard for promising me something it never delivered.
That is until one September afternoon, two years after I moved in. I had laid down a few rows of tile in the dining room. I was tired and my back hurt, so I tried to walk off the pain. There was a stiff breeze - it cool day after a blazing Georgia summer. The kids were occupied, so I put on a jacket, grabbed a novel and my violet teapot and went out into the little garden. I sat at our round metal table - it just fit the patio - and poured myself a cup of tea.
The patio was now surrounded by azaleas. The sun had heated up the timbers on the retaining wall and it threw the warmth back at me. The little peach tree I’d bought for a dollar at a yard sale the year after we moved in was big enough to shade the book from the afternoon sun. The spicy scent of chrysanthemums wafted from a pot next to the table. The pumpkin vine climbed around the fence, waving its viney arms cheerfully into the front yard, still taunting the HOA. My dog, Sam rolled in his dust hole and grunted with pleasure.
The roses were now green waterfall with a second flush of foamy white blossoms tumbling through the leaves. Out of the hole in the wall where it made its home, a chipmunk slyly leaned out to chew on a rose. The last of the butterflies hovered around the purple and yellow buddleia and then floated to the pots by the table. We were all protected from the eyes of the neighbors and the chilly wind in our tiny little world together. The little backyard was wrapping itself around me, but this time with warmth and scent and color, all it had promised me and more. The sense of shelter had returned. The garden loved me regardless of the fact that my care of it had been half-hearted and grumpy. It embraced me and warmed me in spite of my bad attitude. What could I do? I loved it back.
And that is the end of the story of the unlovable garden.
First published February 15, 2019
Julie Carpenter is the creator of the Sacred Chickens website and the author of Things Get Weird in Whistlestop. She is dedicated to telling stories and making sure that indie writers and publishers have a way to be heard. She uses narrative, her own and others’, to help interpret the world. She has a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Memphis, with an emphasis in Composition Theory. She wants to bend reality one story at a time. Julie’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and will be included The New Guard. She is currently working on a novel.