We have nice neighbors in all directions, but the ones we interact with most are those whose driveway runs parallel to ours no more than 20 feet away. US driveways being the café, the front porch, of the 21st-century, we step into or out of the car expecting a social encounter. If we were to grow lonely, we could consider washing the car or pruning the roses alongside our neighbors’ turf.
Ten years ago things weren’t so copacetic. The young couple next door lodged his father, an unemployed, bombastic, heavy-metal, beer-swilling outlaw who left evidence that he had burglarized our house. At Christmastime. Opening all of the wrapped gifts stacked in the study. We never recovered the stolen goods, but we investigated the cost of an iron grill on which we could train fast-climbing vines for a quick wall between driveways. That improvement evaporated when the iron-worker demanded artisanal prices, but the dream of a natural wall persisted. We planted Italian cypress, both forest green and golden, to divide the two homes, at least presenting a visual impediment to our neighboring persona non grata. As time rolled on, I watched the sweet gum tree my mother had given me one birthday, planted in the back corner of our lot. It had grown to thirty feet and to occupy most favored status in my heart. I added a sweet gum tree to the end of our driveway.
The sweet-gum tree, most glorious of the fall display. Which leaf color do you prefer? Burgundy? Gold? Tangerine? Crimson? Canary? The sweet gum displays them all intermingled over three to four weeks, extending autumn’s glory and defying the encroaching winter landscape. This joyful display up close to the street would cheer drivers-by and extinguish any suspicion that we were anti-social grumps intent on isolation.
Although the outlaw neighbor moved on, my anti-Frostian love of the wall never abated. Yesterday, I was set to act on my creeping determination that we needed one more tree along the driveway border; this selection should partner with the existing sweet gum, now at its radiant best, and break up the monotonous wall of cypress.
I began my quest at Bloomer’s Nursery, where they had artfully displayed five sweet gums, up close to the office, as backdrop for yellow and tawny chrysanthemums. About five feet tall and $70 each. Pricey. How far did my commitment extend? I would look for another source. Second stop, the reputable Gray’s Nursery in town along 6th Street. I approached the end of the tree lot where the street trees and garden trees were mostly de-leafed, looked for a stray sweet-gum leaf hanging on, but I found none. Two ruddy young men were standing about in a professional confab, and they asked if they could help.
“Do you have any sweet gum trees left?”
“No, we don’t carry sweet gums.”
“You . . . don’t . . . carry . . . them?”
“No, we find that they cause too many problems.”
“Yeah, people don’t like them. They have a shallow root system that lifts up sidewalks. They are just not that popular.”
“REALly? I’ve had one for more than thirty years and never had a problem. I love it.” And I’m thinking, they’re not that popular? They are all around town, one of the most commonly seen street trees and garden trees in town, growing in columnar fashion, so modest in breadth, vivacious in display.
“They are beautiful,” one young man added, gesturing to the tree just beyond the nursery fence, in full glory along 5th Street.
“Has the sidewalk been uplifted there,” I asked. “No.”
The companion added, “They just hang onto their leaves too long!”
Now there was a novel critique of an autumn tree. That it was “not popular,” a reasonable economic criterion for not selling, this was an implausible excuse. But why would one fault an autumn tree for displaying its colorful leaves for too long?”
“You cannot be serious; you guys are missing an opportunity.” I turned on my heel and said they should have no fear, I would not check back. I reflected on my avid life as a gardener for more than thirty years. How I kept a garden journal and contemplated through the dark winter months how to perk up the landscape, shape our half-acre into a coherent park-like space, with color for all seasons, shapes, heights, and flashes of color, no matter where or when you surveyed the space.
I have tried to shape my garden like I’ve tried to shape my life, to impose beauty and order, creative but not permanent combinations, to remind me I am never finished. There is much I have accomplished but much I still can do. I can find a source for a tree, no matter how one nurseryman of limited imagination attempts to limit my choices or to impose what he thinks best. One’s vision, one’s spirit, after all, cannot be bound by “Big Brother” or squelched by popular dismissal. No, these brush-piles ignite the energy required to leap them.