Rub of the Green

What I’ve gained from having a garden: two freaky cats and some human friends who are kinder than they have to be.

What I’ve gained from having a garden: two freaky cats and some human friends who are kinder than they have to be.

By Susan Anspach


Illustration by Matt Mignanelli


Northern Virginia, last year was a big year for me, and for a very specific reason.

To give you a sense of scale, you should know that a lot of whatsis went down in 2012. I wrapped a grad degree, got married, quit my job—not that it’s anything to you, but for scale. I bought a treadmill. Rejoined Twitter; that was a week of April I’ll never get back. I didn’t write about that week because I recognize and respect that you have your own treadmills and Twitter accounts to tend to, and I’m glad you do. In general I try not to drag you down into the snares of my personal life because I value your time and also because I like it when you use it to talk to me on the Internet.

Still, there is this one thing that, at the time and in the midst of everything else that happened last year, didn’t seem like such a major thing unto itself. Toward the end, though, with the dust settling and my feet finally close to back under me, with time, finally, to smell the occasional rose, I found I couldn’t see the roses for the tangle of briars and weeds that were boa-style circling my home and moving in closer with each passing day.

In 2012 I acquired my first garden, and here’s what I’ve learned so far about gardens: You can’t run from them. You can’t hide. You can hack at them for a while but eventually you’ll tire out, and guess what never tires out? Species belonging to the same kingdom as other species with 106-acre root systems.

In the beginning a garden seemed like a great idea. Like I said, 2012 was a biggie, and part of that was making the transition from living in a long string of apartments to a house, a real house, with a basement and a yard. I don’t do basements, obviously, because ghosts, but I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like yards. Even if not universally beloved, anyone who’s lived in apartments as long as I have need only to hear the words “yard space” to go full-on Hungry Hippo on that yard space.

The best part, or what I thought was the best part, was my yard came pre-equipped with a garden, replete with stone flowerbeds, fancy bushes and partial xeriscaping.

It was a garden preordained for success, and in it I pictured beds of herbs and high fruit trees, scampering chipmunks. The babbling laughter of young neighborhood children. I saw my future lined with lush green grass, sprouting pink buds, tomato plants taller than me. Cotton plants I’d make my own shirts from as soon as I rigged up a cotton gin and learned to sew.

That was in June. In July I think I mowed the grass twice; in August I remembered the garden existed one time and rushed out to chop a bush before rushing back in to post a photo to Facebook of me chopping a bush. In September I underwent my annual “pumpkin-spice fugue state,” whereby I order a single seasonal drink from Starbucks, black out and come up gasping for air three weeks later with my head doused in foam and heart racing like a hamster.

In October I looked out the window to discover things had gotten … sticky. To say the grass was looking “shaggy” would be generous. There were weeds in places I didn’t know weeds could grow, and if I had to pick the first clear sign of trouble, it’s that some of the vines had braided together to from collective behemothic vines, each with alarmingly thick musculature.

The second sign of trouble was these two cats I started seeing out there, and this coming from a person with nothing against cats. I count myself as an animal lover, and if you asked me to identify as a cat person or a dog person I couldn’t choose. The cats weren’t direct trouble so much as this feeling I got about the shifty way they had of looking at me; I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly but you could tell from their aura those cats knew too much, like they’d each been fed half a scroll of ancient Sanskrit and had absorbed the secrets there. They looked more through me than at me, and when I got closer they vanished.

To be clear on this point: They did not walk away. They did not run really fast. Like firebirds into flame, like shadows into the sunken maw of dark night, that was these cats to this garden. What I’m not saying is that they were spirit animals the garden had produced by growing on hidden vines or inside secret heads of cabbage, but if the thought occurred to you, who could judge you for it.

Alas, those cats didn’t give a fig for my spirit, in spite of always coming and going, or sitting and staying. Whatever they felt like at the time, really. It turned out that shifty look in their eyes was territorialism, or rather the exchange between them of a question as to what I thought I was doing in their garden in which they’d discovered secret passageways and excavated secret tunnels and conjured their secret time-continuum portals (no hard proof on this yet but if anything covers its tracks it’s got to be a cat with a DeLorean)

By now I was living in the midst of a Congolese minefield; you could have cat-Deloreaned me to 1899’s “Heart of Darkness,” and I wouldn’t have known I wasn’t looking out my front window. I bought a weed whacker, and the minefield laughed in the face of my weed whacker. I sprayed insecticide, and the minefield slow-reenacted the Kate Beckinsale shower scene from “Whiteout” in my insecticide.

I’ll tell you what didn’t help. It didn’t help that both my adjacent neighbors have Versailles-style gardens that pushed up on either side of my own, each wafting fall leaves and water music and rose petals. Wonder neighbors, that’s what I’ve got. Miracle of ages, neither of them’s ever complained to me. One of them, after trimming a tree in his yard that slightly branched over mine, offered to clean the segment of my property his trimmings could have fallen into; and looking back on it, I think it was the shame I felt at the moment that finally did me in.

If you’re not Marie Antoinette or a horticulturist, it’s embarrassing to hire a gardener, you know? Because a gardener’s not an indulgence. A beautiful dress is an indulgence. A fine pair of shoes. A stainless-steel pair of gardening shears, maybe. But it’s not indulgence when an able-bodied, relatively young person with time enough and a lawn mower hires someone else for his time and his lawn mower. It’s surrender. My white flag was showing for all the dragon vines and cats and DeLoreans to see, and it didn’t make me feel better when it took that gardener all of two hours to whip my yard into shape, working alone, without gloves.

Most of the time I hid in my bedroom, pretending to be really absorbed in the underside of my quilt and some books, but I recommend him.

He didn’t ask me to come out til the very end, when it was time to book him for spring.

@CitySprawlNVMag is frankly exhausted. If you need her she’ll be passed out in the azaleas.


(January 2013)