In the summer of the pandemic, I planted a garden.
I was supposed to be in Budapest that summer, renovating my grandmother’s apartment. I was looking forward to months of planning the renovations, talking to contractors, practicing my Hungarian. Instead, the coronavirus came and disrupted all my plans.
In March, I was scheduled to be at the London Book Fair. When it was abruptly cancelled, I wondered what to do with my tickets. The virus was already circulating, but no one was particularly worried — we were told the problems would stay in China. Europe and the United States would be safe. Rather than cancelling my flights, I decided to purchase the extra tickets from Heathrow to Budapest. If I could not be at the book fair, I could at least check on the apartment. I was not worried, exactly — not yet. But I think at some level I sensed that the world was shifting on its axis, that we were entering a new reality I did not yet understand. No one wore masks then, but I brought hand sanitizer on the plane. Just in case.
It was the week of Spring Break, the only week during the semester when I could have made such a trip. In the middle of the week, I received an email from the university: the students were being sent home, teaching was going online, and my department was holding a meeting to plan for the next two months. I joined that meeting from Budapest and spent the rest of the week training on online platforms. When the travel ban was announced, I confirmed, with relief, that my plane would be landing an hour before the borders were closed. If it arrived late, I would be fine — my American passport would let me into the country anyway. Citizens could still fly home, we were told. Nevertheless, I did not want to test that assurance. When I left the apartment in Budapest, I was sad that I would not see it again until May, or June at the latest, or July at the absolute latest.
My flight from Heathrow to Boston was filled with college students sent home from study abroad programs and panicked Americans worried they might not be let back into their own country. I landed at Logan and took the metro system to my apartment. The next day, I started teaching my scared and scattered students online. They were already all over the world, from China to California. Some of them joined the class from mandatory quarantine. And that was the next two months: teaching to faces on my laptop, trying to recreate the community of the classroom on a computer screen. Going to the grocery store and pharmacy, since we were on lockdown and those were the only places we were allowed to go. Trying to find flour and toilet paper, since they were in short supply. Taking walks in the park or the streets around my apartment. For a month after I returned, I checked my temperature three times a day, just in case I had caught the virus while traveling. But it remained normal.
My apartment was the first floor of an old house, probably the oldest on that street. Once, a friend pointed out that above the back door was an insulator for an old telephone system. Written on it was New England Telephone and Telegraph, a company that existed for only one year: 1878. The living room had wide plank floors with square nails in them. It was on a curving one-way street of apartment houses, none of them more than three stories, many with porches. The street was lined with ancient linden trees that shaded it in summer and filled the gutters with yellow leaves in autumn. They reminded me of the linden trees in the park around the Nemzeti Múzeum, across the street from the apartment in Budapest. That was possibly why I had rented my apartment, which was too expensive for me. But then, all the apartments in that area were expensive. It was a town that had long ago become part of Boston, but still retained its own character and independent identity — its own government, library system, and town center. It had bookstores and café and small shops, all of which were closed because of the virus.
But my apartment was quiet and sunny, and I liked having a floor all to myself. I even had a back porch! The previous year, I had hung up a bird feeder, and it was amusing to watch, in the mornings, as all the birds came — little gray junkos, a male and female cardinal, raucous jays. And of course squirrels, who were as funny as they were destructive, knocking over the few flower pots I had put out there. They were still empty — there had been no time to grow anything, since I was a busy teacher and writer. I could enter the building through the front door or walk around to the porch and enter though a back door into the kitchen. If I chose that way, I would pass a long bed of mulch and weeds, then walk on concrete pavers through grass and weeds, to arrive at a rectangular area of more grass and weeds where the previous tenants had kept a large grill. Of course the grill was gone — only the grass and weeds remained. As winter turned into spring, the weeds grew taller, but that was not my problem.
Then May came, and the semester ended, but the pandemic did not. By this time the European borders were also closed, and there were still no flights. Flour and toilet paper were still in short supply. We were all wearing masks to go outside and keeping our distance from one another. We were waiting for the virus to peak so we could return to something like normal. I had started reading the news compulsively, for any sign that conditions were improving. That was when I sent my landlord a message: “May I plant a garden?” I knew I would not be able to travel until later that summer, and I thought I could at least put in some raised beds for herbs. I was feeling anxious, sometimes even depressed, and I needed something to do — something physical that did not involve staring at a computer screen. I assured him that I was an experienced gardener. “Go for it,” said his email in response. So I walked out to that back rectangle and looked at it. The soil was not good — the dying grass told me that. If I wanted to grow anything, I would need raised beds. And half the garden was shaded by the high wooden fence of the apartment building next door. This would be a challenge.
Between the time I wrote to my landlord and the time I received that response, my plans had already become more ambitious than a few herbs to cook with. I wanted flowers, lots of flowers. I needed to know that beauty and joy existed, and flowers would be a visible reminder of that. I thought of what Sherlock Holmes had said to Dr. Watson in “The Naval Treaty” “as he held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green”:
“Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
That was what I wanted: some assurance that Nature, if not Providence, had her benevolent side, that she created flowers as well as viruses. And so I planted a garden. How I did it, and what happened during that process, I’ll describe in future posts. But for now, here are some pictures of what the space looked like before it was my garden, and my garden as it looks today. It’s not finished of course. It’s only two months old, a gangling puppy of a garden. But it makes me happy.
This is what the rectangular plot looked like, before I started. High wooden fence on one side, chain link fence in the back, porch to the right.
And this is that same rectangular plot, today. The grass still looks straggly because the ground had been reseeded and it’s growing in. There are five raised beds (one not in the photo), seven galvanized tubs, and two hanging baskets.
This was the long bed on the side, when I had just started working on it. I had already cleared the weeds and put in a few plants.
This is that same long bed, today. I call it the woodland bed. I’ve put in hostas, azaleas, astilbe, heucheras, a bunch of irises and daylilies. And at the far end there is what will someday be a magnificent peonie.
This is a small raised bed on the other side of the porch steps, not shown above. It has a miniature lilac, lavender, and pinks. I didn’t know if the pinks would bloom this year, but they are all blooming now.