It’s mid-December. Even in California, the sunlight that buoys my spirit is diminished. It gets dark at around five in the afternoon, and the winter storms are upon us. Though each year I anxiously await the return of the rains, the cold weather and darkened sky temporarily dampen my mood. It has not been a great year on the news front either. Unemployment remains unacceptably high. Our glorious golden state, still in a fiscal nightmare, raises the sales tax while taking an ax to education, the one endeavor with a future. And the environmental picture… Don’t get me started.
When the big problems seem too big, my garden has always been a place of comfort. Watching birds flitter around, noticing the first wildflower seedlings, and picking avocados and lettuce all make me feel like things will be okay. I hope that those who do not have a garden find similar solace in parks and urban community gardens, with the added advantage of being able to socialize with their neighbors.
But back to the garden. Along the sidewalk the Ray Hartman California lilac is filling out nicely. Yet when I step outside to look at it, I see something that I have seen all too often over the past few years. Branches are broken and split on one shrub, the other is pulled over. A newly planted monkey flower is uprooted and thrown into the middle of the front lawn. The soil is wet from the rains, so I right the California lilac and replant the monkey flower. I cut the split branches off the other shrub, realizing it probably will not survive. Then I go inside to call the police, again. A polite woman on the phone gives me an “Incident Number” and tells me that the police will drive around our block more often. Little comfort to me.
So what is going on here? Putting on my detective hat, I remember that this kind of thing has been going on for at least three years. The worst case was when several young trees along the sidewalk were uprooted and destroyed. One wildflower season, large spectacular flowering annuals were pulled out in the height of their glory and thrown into the bushes. I posted signs asking people to keep a look out for the wildflower murderer. In spite of everyone’s disgust, the monster eluded capture. Still, branches from trees are broken and left hanging, innocent young plants are robbed of their colorful promise, and venerable older shrubs are defiled.
I do not mean to make light of this, though it does help put it into perspective. This is not a major crime. Yet because it has been going on for several years I believe one of my neighbors is using this as a way to intimidate and bully us. So what are my options? I have spoken to the police and it is highly unlikely that they can help. I have spoken to neighbors. Since the plant murderer is not doing his/her nefarious deeds while others are around to see, I am expecting little help from them, either.
I now look to the garden itself for solutions. I have reduced the amount I garden outside the fence. This is unfortunate for me and for the pedestrians who do enjoy the garden but I find it less pleasant to be out there than to work inside the yard. In addtion, I no longer plant things that I pay for. I only put in plants I propagate from cuttings, and even here I am putting in less and less. Instead, I am letting native bunch grasses reseed themselves since they are tough, durable and hard to hurt. In response the garden is taking on a slightly wilder look, something I am enjoying. And there is less pampering needed for these plants. I am also seeding more with wildflowers. Yes some will be pulled out, their desiccating forms dangling in shrubs, but no one can pull out all of them.
So the plant murderer has gotten a response from me, but maybe not the one he/she wants. This trivial but supremely unfriendly act will change the garden but not for the worse. It will become tougher and stronger, but the flowers will continue to bloom each year.
Monkey flowers that I am potting up from 4 inch plants. Pot in front has cuttings of these young plants.
The whole thing makes me sad but I try to keep it in perspective. Many of my neighbors tell me how much they enjoy this little strip of wild suburbia along the sidewalk. I have overheard young kids explaining to their parents how the mulch helps the plants. It is, after all, probably just one person who is trying to spoil it for many, and that will not happen. The big problems we face are not so easily solved but our gardens can teach us how to approach them.