Apr 1, 2018


The death of a loved one, coworker or pet reminds us of our own mortality. At least temporarily, we reevaluate what is important, what is worth our time and energy.  Those departed, especially the most recent ones, are really adept at their job.  I had a fair share of loss over the past year, the most recent being the loss of my cat, Gigi. Often referred to as Mr. Gigi, that mischievous fur ball joined my family when my boys were one and three years old. He would have been seventeen years old this year. As I held his skinny, fur-covered body, still and still warm I realized I would never again get mad at him for peeing on the bathroom rug and would miss seeing him waiting on the sink for a drink of running water. He was often a pain in the ass but he was family and he knew we loved him. Mr. Gigi is gone.

This loss coincided with a time of conflict. It occurred around the time of an argument with someone I cared for; an argument that changed the course of our relationship and made me adjust my priorities. At the same time I began the dreaded task of organizing my tax returns. I love trees but paperwork, not so much. Gigi’s death also occurred during an altercation with a gardener at a community garden near my home in Harlem. Being able to grow delicious and gorgeous tomatoes requires some attention. However, many with limited skill and knowledge assume the role and title of expert and evidence of their handiwork is clear to more trained eyes. Over 27 million Americans filed their own taxes in 2017. Does that mean they are qualified accountants?

On my first garden day of the season I found that someone had already cleaned the perennial flowerbed that I planted and devoted much of my limited finances, time and energy to for the past three years. What most distressed me was the loss of the Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil' that was rescued from an old client's garden years ago. It needed much more sun than was available in that backyard and it was finally thriving in its new home in the community garden. I pampered that tall, lanky shrub with extra water and mulched it heavily each winter. On that eventful Tuesday I found the ilex severed to about one third of the height it had struggled so many years to grow to. It now showed no signs of life. The buddleia was cut within an inch of the soil and several other shrubs were cut so low that I wonder if they would ever resurface. The ground was scraped clean and bare of leaves, garbage bags of cutting were piled in a nearby corner and the rosemary bush was gone. I reached out to the persons I thought responsible. It was not easy to explain that being able to grow tomatoes from seed or potted plants or growing sunflowers is not quite the same as knowing how, when, why and if to prune a shrub or a tree and when to cutback plants. The gardener who slashed the ilex also cut back the ornamental grasses dangerously low to the soil. He called the grasses "straw".

I tried to explain that this bed should not be “cleaned” the same way the annuals in the bed of tomatoes and collard greens would and the importance of what I was tiring to achieve with maintaining this almost all-native plant garden. This garden had finally gotten the attention of monarch butterflies and had become the home and feeding place of numerous bees, wasps, praying mantis and birds. I tried to explain that every plant in the bed was paid for out of my pocket; it was not okay for a member to cut every single one of the liatris that struggled through three growing seasons and were finally standing tall. I reminded the gardener of the many times I had provided plants, vegetables, seeds and garden assistance and asked that he and other members check with me before removing flowers that were meant or monarchs. The response I received was very surprising. There were no apologies. It was clear that gardeners with longer membership felt entitled to the plants of that bed and confident of their skills yet unaware of their limited knowledge of plants.


In another garden, closer to my home, a garden caretaker lopped off limbs of the London plane trees, slashed the Japanese maple, witch hazels and dogwoods were mutilated mid- trunk. These disfigured trees and shrubs do not seem to disturb non-gardeners and this caretaker will soon be assigned to maintain the new garden proposed by a crew of architecture students. These students are not landscape architecture students, horticulturists, botanists or gardeners. However, they are proposing designs that will include paving a large portion of the garden space and the removal of mature Calgary pears and four 70’ London plane trees that sustain a population of birds that are so important to our North Harlem neighborhood.    

Over the years I have encountered many trained, skilled and expert gardeners, garden designers and horticulturist, some of whom have published books and write garden articles. These experts are aware of how much there is to learn and know in the fields. At the same time I meet many persons who know so little yet claim to be experts. I understand the zeal. Climate change, global warming and environmental awareness have made gardening and related activities timely, fashionable, hip and sexy. Getting dirt on one’s hand is admirable. Caring enough to know the importance of knowing is even more admirable.The beginning of wisdom is awareness of just how little one knows.

Each year I find bodies of cats, birds and squirrels that do not survive the winter in gardens after the snow melts. I have buried many. Like leaves and decomposed stems that are spared the misfortune of being scraped off the earth and hauled away in garbage bags, these bodies go back in the ground after they have been nourished by all the good things that spring out of it. April brings life to the garden. April also brings varying degrees of skilled and unskilled garden enthusiasts. This April as with all previous Aprils, I will file my taxes with the help of an accountant.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...