I try to hold up my end of that part of the social contract that pertains to a yard's appearance. Our back yard, tiny as it is, looks good, as do the plantings around the foundation and the fences. I cultivate and compost. And it mostly works well. We get a lot of flowers and fruit. We grow herbs and a few vegetables. Our shrubs are varied and interesting.
And our boulevard looks like hell.
We have two overgrown problem children living at home. One is a silver maple planted by the city in that strip of what for most homes is comprised of grass, between the curb and the sidewalk. The other is a Norway red maple that we call "the grandparents' tree" in honor of our deceased parents, in the center of our front yard. Like elders and offspring, these trees are opinionated about conditions of frost and drought, summer and winter. And like them, their shade is so dense, nothing will grow within a particular radius of their thick trunks.
Except for hosta.
About five years ago, I planted hosta among the protruding roots, like long bony fingers and ribs, of the boulevard tree. They somehow took to this environment. Perhaps it had something to do with the dozen or so bags of black dirt I put down first.
This is the beast I wrestle with every year. It looks like this in the spring, and then leafs out at the base of the trunk into something more respectable:
This summer, I was betrayed - not once, but twice.
I am speaking here not of the predictable annual betrayal that occurs after I spend a fortune on grass seed (yes, the kind developed for dense shade), fertilizer, topsoil, and a special white filmy cloth to keep it all in place. None of this matters. By the time July comes, when the other lawns up and down the block are as lush and green as the golf course half a block away (another source of shame) and needing to be mowed once if not twice a week, we have a few blades of dry grass, the aforementioned shards of hosta, and dirt.
This summer, the neighbors across the street landscaped their boulevard. And the neighbors next door did the same. They had it professionally done. And their yards look wonderful.
And our yard has just slipped one circle deeper into horticultural hell.
They have shrubs, wild grasses, sedum, astilbe, and boulders. They have deep carpets of redwood shavings. I look at our boulevard, and hang my head in shame. How will I ever be able to look my neighbors in the eye again? Will I be snubbed at the block party, even if I bring cases full of beer and huge bowls of my signature potato salad, on ice to guard against salmonella poisoning?
What is it, exactly, that bothers me?
Part of it is - I hate to say this - a class issue. My neighbors across the street own a successful business. My next-door neighbors are a doctor and a nurse practitioner. They can afford to hire landscapers. We cannot. I am deeply envious.
But as I sit under the grandparents' tree, I think of my father in his sleeveless ribbed undershirt, gray shorts, black socks and shoes, pushing the mower up and down the slope. We had clover, and a few sandburrs by the street, but back then that was perfectly okay. No one hired landscapers. Still, it would not have been okay to have a five-by-twenty foot patch of bare ground right up by the road. It would not have been neighborly.
And it was not neighborly for us to continue to tilt at windmills as the shade from the trees deepened and the topsoil slid from the slope with each rain. It was not friendly to rationalize our efforts by saying, oh, we can only grow dirt and hosta, when it was perfectly obvious, from the looks of our neighbors' yards, that we were in complete denial?
I send my husband to Menard's with three fifty-dollar gift cards. He buys cedar chips instead of redwood shavings and I'm not too happy about that until I see how clean and bright they look. My son has scraped two to four inches down, evening out the dirt. We've already bought the sedum, and I'm going to buy a few perennials and shrubs, and we'll move some bishop's weed from the back. If nothing else, we will be wasting our money on something other than grass seed.
And we'll put in some flagstones. My parents had a few flagstones. Not enough to be called a path. But enough to be called stepping stones.
And after twenty-four years of life in this neighborhood, I will put in the first step.