A few days ago, I was browsing around the nursery pen in a home improvement warehouse. I’d just come from a Master Gardener function, and bedecked in red shirt and name tag, I was on a mission for cheap impatiens of any shade but salmon. Temperatures had climbed into the sort of digits that no longer hold any meaning besides extreme discomfort and dead flowers. Couples wandered aimlessly, looking at wilting perennial favorites and arguing over pond liners. Predictably, bedding annuals stretched out in front of me in various shades of salmon.
From a far off corner of the holding pen, I heard the plaintive bleating of a lamb come to slaughter – a suburban homeowner looking for someone…anyone who knew the slightest thing about plants in a store better known for kitchen renos and toilet valves. I watched him as he accosted teenage wielders of watering wands who looked at him bemusedly with the eyes of employees paid by the hour to intensively irrigate – not for their extensive knowledge base or charming manners.
I’m not sure what came over me. Having much to learn in the way of suburban isolationism, I approached and asked if I could be of any help, expecting a rapid fire volley of quick question, quick answer, then back again to impatiens and heat stroke in the midday sun.
When he took out his phone and started scrolling through pictures, I realized I was in for the long haul.
He was looking for a shrub, he said. He wasn’t sure what kind of shrub, but it needed to be dwarf and it needed to be colorful and he needed three. He was in a hurry. Couldn’t I see from the pictures what kind of shrub he needed? Anything but yellow, his wife had told him – and then sent him out to brave a sea of shrubbery and sullen teenagers. He mumbled something under his breath and continued to scroll through photos with jerky, anxious movements.
His photos revealed a typical American new construction home on a typical American new construction lot. Badly chosen foundation plantings were beginning to block first story windows. Irresponsibly chosen maples were ringed with eighteen inch mulch volcanos. Criminally chosen twin arborvitae nearly blocked a beige front door; and a heavily fertilized lawn blanketed all with the sweet, lush conformity of grass at its peak of chemical perfection. Just another Pleasant Valley Sunday. Not my scene. Not even my act.
He was tearing out those foundation plantings, he told me. Not on the grounds of beauty, or height, or even taste, but for the simple reason that they blocked his air conditioning unit if he didn’t shear them twice a year. He wanted well-behaved replacements and he wanted them quickly.
Fighting the instinct to tell him to rip out every last bit of landscaping and start again – preferably with a plan for vegetable beds, an ornamental border and a cutting garden in his back pocket – I looked at his slide show as carefully as his rapidly scrolling finger would allow. I fingered the keys in my pocket and wondered what my Master Gardener boss would say to me if I left him at the mercy of Tim and Tina the Teenage Waterers.
Itea virginica came to mind – Virginia sweetspire – for a fairly short shrub (3-5 feet) with a bit of personality (flowers in summer) and points for being political correct (native). He asked if it was green. I replied in the affirmative. He thought she didn’t want green, either. Well, that put the kibosh on the mountain laurel I was about to recommend, but at least it removed any chance of further sickly suburban azaleas forced to brave clay subsoil.
I looked at the photos again and tried to imagine being content with a garden this boring. I was staring at a space which precisely typified the absolute worst aspects of suburban landscaping…and being asked to contribute more in the way of banal, non-descript planting advice. My own garden philosophy chafed against such a setting – yet he truly wished for nothing more, and who was I to tell him otherwise?
He re-communicated his desire to check this job off his list as quickly and as cheaply as possible – it would be pointless to tell him to go down the road to a local nursery I loved. My eyes rested on the table of dwarf berberis beside us. I gulped down my sensibilities and affixed a smile to my face.
“These barberry are small, they’re purple, and they’re cheap.” I said in a low voice, praying the gods of horticulture would understand my transgression and avert their eyes.
“I’ll take them. Thanks.” He grabbed three pots, pricked his hand on a thorn and winced. “This gardening thing…” he added, as he reconfigured his grip, “…don’t know why you do it.” He marched up to the cashier, swiped his card and headed back into garden obscurity – leaving me to think about his parting words as I gave up on the impatiens and headed home.
I can’t say that I had a clear answer for him…or for myself. But I certainly wouldn’t be doing it if that was all it was.