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From Crop Failure to a Harvest of Friendship

When we lived in a house with its own yard, I reigned. But when we downsized to a condo townhouse, I only ruled a patio and had access to the homeowners association’s modest garden plot that had lain fallow for years under layers of nearly indestructible hardwood chips.

Since no one else was interested, the entire garden space became mine. I raked out eight bushels of those chips and shoveled in bushels of composted manure, creating a soil that any vegetable would be pleased to sink its roots into.

Because the soil rescue work had been so taxing, I planted easy-to-grow lettuce, basil, beans, arugula, zinnias, and marigolds. Although deer and rabbits threatened my little plot, come fall I did a victory lap around it. After putting it to bed, I spent winter enjoying next year’s garden, planted in my mind.

Then Cheryl moved in next door. Having heard that she should consult me about the garden space, she introduced herself. Over tea, I learned that divorce had delivered her here. I sympathized with her having to relinquish a huge house on several acres with its big cutting garden and hoped to swap gardening techniques.

“How long have you been gardening?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? I hired people for that!” I was getting the picture: Tennis, horseback riding, Cartier watch.

“So, what did your hired hands create?”

“Nicely shaped boxwoods –I hate when they’re uneven! Rows of lavender. Snapdragons. Nothing red – I hate red flowers!”

Well, I said, she shouldn’t have trouble with this little space, and I’d help whenever. And, mentally adjusting my vision, I said to go ahead and use the sunny northeast quadrant. Cheryl settled into her single life, cobbling together an income stream from selling specialty foods to small markets. And because she loved inventing simple, elegant meals and cooking for friends, she wanted to teach people how to plan easy fancy dinner parties.

When our different schedules allowed, we’d walk to the shopping district. Passing by a row of white-blossomed Bradford pears, Cheryl said, “So pretty! What are they?”

“You mean,” I teased, “those invasive trees that smell like dead fish? I can’t believe you like them but hate red flowers!”

Occasionally I’d offer to help her start her garden instead of taking our walk, but she usually produced reasons not to. Still, she assured me she knew what to do and not to worry about her, so I didn’t. Until I did.

In Spring, I left tools on my patio for her, stressing that she mustn’t ever dig in wet soil. One day, she reported that after it rained, she’d worked her plot. I heaved a deep sigh. But after a lifetime of teaching my children to restrain themselves before destructively plowing ahead, I’d learned to detach from thinking I could control anyone besides myself.

The next day I saw the fruits of her labor. Digging in wet soil compacts it, keeping air and water from penetrating, and because southwest Ohio soil is clay loam, it practically turns to concrete when it dries. Sure enough, big hard clay balls lay throughout her plot. Cheryl had blithely scattered radish, bean, corn, and cosmos seeds helter-skelter onto the lumpy surface, then left town for one of the many business trips she’d take during the growing season. As she prepared to go out of town, she thoughtfully gifted me the fresh produce from her fridge and her store-bought flower bouquets.

It was still early enough not to throw in the trowel, so I added her quadrant to my list of garden tasks. I lamented about all my work resurrecting this space, only now to be picking up hardened clay balls and breaking them or tossing them into the compost. It was clear Cheryl loved the idea of gardening but not the actual work. I, on the contrary, am used to the heartache that gardening entails – dashed hopes, tattered dreams, results that never matched the bountiful harvests I’d imagined. I reaped her puny misshapen radishes for her, predicting she wouldn’t eat them. But at least she’d learned to contribute them to the compost.

During spring, I shared my different lettuce varieties with her. In September, she used the green beans and tomatoes I gave her and cooked me a simple, delicious dish she’d learned from a local chef – sauteing the onion in olive oil, stirring in the beans, tomatoes, thyme, and salt, and simmering until the beans were soft.

Had we not been neighbors, I doubt Cheryl’s and my paths would have crossed. She spends evenings in bars, obsesses over appearances, name-drops, and says she knows she’s a snob – none of which describe me. But no matter how much we disagree, I admire her enthusiasm, sense of humor, and complete honesty.

Determined for the gardening bug to bite her and helping to ground her a little, I gave her some cherry tomato plants plus divisions of my oregano and thyme plants to grow in the space outside her front door. Days later when bringing me an armful of fragrant lilies, she said, “You’ll be proud of me!” and showed me how she’d planted my offerings. “Please water them while I’m away.”

In October, I taught her how to collect seeds from flowering annuals which she continues to do with magenta spider flowers and pink cosmos. She lets her cherry tomatoes reseed themselves each year. And she doesn’t need to remove her expensive jewelry to do this.

Now, she’s rented out her unit next door and bought another condo out-of-state where she teaches clients to host easy fancy dinners. We share text messages, phone calls, and photos and when she’s in town, we enjoy a Sunday brunch listening to live jazz at our favorite café. I freeze beans from my garden to use during winter to make her dish. And, just as I taught her, she continues to harvest flower seeds to sprinkle wherever she travels.

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