There are a few things I'm good at. There are many things I'm competent at. Then there's a whole galaxy of things I am completely incompetent at. Gardening is one of them. And I'm not being hard on myself. There's a trail of dead plants that can confirm this assessment.
Honestly, it's not for lack of trying. I want to be able to have plants. And I feel terrible when I know I've caused a once-living thing to now be dead.
I have a black thumb. I've come to grips with this affliction.
So it should be no surprise that when we moved into our house, we hired gardeners to maintain the front and back yards.
I find Los Angeles gardeners are a mysterious group. For one thing, they are everywhere. Every day, on every street, at any time of daylight, there are the telltale pickup trucks filled with lawn mowers and trimmers. Men with leaf blowers who politely pause their blowing if you walk by.
They will give you a courteous nod if you force them to interact with you, but otherwise they move stealthily in the background, like part of the scenery.
Our gardeners come once a week. I find it incredibly awkward. I'm not sure why. I always have. I wrote a whole blog post about how I hide in the house when they're here because it feels so strange to me that there are people who show up at my house and do stuff for me.
They come through in a flurry of activity; there's usually a group of two or three guys and I can hear them as I sit in my darkened bedroom, listening to the noises emanating from their movements.
I know there are some people who are probably in regular contact with their gardeners. These are people who know the names of their plants and probably pick out fresh annuals that need to be planted every year.
I am not one of those people.
In fact, there have only been two times I've spoken to the gardeners. The first was when we moved in 13 years ago. My neighbor's gardener approached me and asked if we were going to need a gardener. He told me about how they schedule their days based on when the garbage cans need to be taken to the curb so they would take care of that for us.
The whole moving-the-garbage-cans-for-you as part of their gardening is genius marketing, because not having to remember garbage day and moving the cans to the curb in itself is something I would pay for on its own.
So we discussed a price, and the deal was done.
The second time I interacted with them was earlier this year when they had mysteriously stopped trimming one of our bushes. After 13 years of trimming the bush, they suddenly stopped. So I very timidly asked if they could please go back to trimming it because it looked like another bush was growing out of the original bush.
Particularly mystifying to me is when they decide to cut the plants back in the winter. The first time it happened, it was a bit shocking. Our grape bush, which grows into a monster of vivid and luscious vines, was cut back to a sad little clump of bare sticks. I really thought they had just decided to murder my grape bush.
And they did the same thing to all our rose bushes.
What had been lovely, full bushes of white blossoms was now just a clump of jagged stems, a quarter of the size they'd previously been.
The reasonable part of me knew that it must be something that gardeners do. It didn't seem likely that our gardeners went crazy and just decided to take out their bad mood on our plants. But I did wonder.
And, of course, after asking a friend about whether we had some sort of psychotic gardener issue, she told me it's common. They have to cut everything way to back to make room for new growth.
Sure enough, the following spring, everything bloomed back to life, growing fuller and more beautiful.
As I've gotten older, I've realized this cutting things back is something we need to do for ourselves as well. Like a not-so-subtle metaphor for our brains, we need to periodically cut back the negative thoughts and behaviors that we've built up over the years to make room for growth. We need to give ourselves room to experience and absorb new things.
I tend to be a bit of a hoarder. I hoard things and I hoard thoughts. But it's a helpful reminder to me every year as I watch our grape bush and our roses bloom and then get cut back, that I too need to take some time to clear my mind of negative thoughts that have been festering. I tend to cling to them and nurture them, giving them a little attention each day. I need to cut away some of the things that I have let grow and flourish, because there needs to be room for new growth.
And I need to go through my closet and my desk and get rid of some of the clutter I've built up around me to make room for new things that might come my way.
And now that I'm older (and I like to think wiser), I don't even need the gardeners to remind me of the importance of making space for myself to grow. When I'm feeling stuck in a rut, I will take it upon myself to take stock of what I've allowed to build up around me and see what I can clear out to make room for a new experience.
But just like it's still always shocking to walk out of my house after the gardeners have been through and see a whole row of decimated plants, it's always uncomfortable for me to let go of thoughts I've grown accustomed to, or to give away bags of old T-shirts that I no longer need.
However, every year, the plants grow back. And every year I have new things and thoughts that can be sorted through.
Mara, I love how you take ordinary occurrences, like the gardener coming, and turn them into life lessons. I always learn from you when I read your pieces.
I have an entirely different relationship with our gardener. I consider him and his family to be personal friends. Jose and Teresa have six kids, three of them teenagers. I never know who will show up when they come, which is every other Saturday. Sometimes it's just the teenagers. Then I know we'll get a B+ gardening job, which is fine with me. But when Teresa comes, I know we'll get the A+ job.
I love to chat with the kids. We talk about school and sports...and sometimes girls (all the teenagers are boys). Teresa doesn't speak much English so our conversations are limited, although sometimes one of the kids will translate. When I asked what they ate for Thanksgiving and it turned out to be tamales, the next time they came, Teresa arrived with a huge plate full of four different kinds for your Dad and me, including one that was a dessert.
They work hard and they expect their kids to. Jose also does some repair work for me. One time, he fixed a gate and, as he did so, taught their 10 year old how to do it. I've never seen a harsh word pass among any of the family members. It hurts my heart to know they might be discriminated against in these anti-immigrant times. They're all U.S. citizens (not that I condone nasty behavior toward people, whether or not they're citizens of this country).
As for my gardening abilities, they're as poor as yours except (and it's a big except), I seem to be able to grow bonsai trees in our bedroom! And to think that you started it all off a few years ago by giving me a small Juniper. I was sure it would die. Instead, it and my other five are thriving and, yes, I have to constantly prune them back.
And, just as you said in your piece, pruning them makes them grow back stronger and more beautiful. This is a lesson I try to take into my daily life. I feel lighter than air whenever I clean out an area of the house. Same with cleaning out my mind, although that's not as easy!