Guarding the Garden


    What do you do when a neighbor calls the city to complain about your garden?

    Dear Miriam,

    In my neighborhood, it's quite common for people to have large gardens and to spend a lot of time tending them. Most neighbors plant ornamental flowers and bushes, but I've decided to focus on growing vegetables. I've only been in the house for a couple of years, and it takes time to get a garden in shape. I'm also growing corn, which is really tall. The other morning, I came outside to find a city employee staring at my garden as if about to write a ticket. When I inquired, he said a neighbor had called about "unsightly weeds." I know which neighbor it was, and I am shocked, since he and I have always had a friendly relationship. What should I do?

    Guarding the Garden

    Dear Garden,

    My first thought is that city employees surely have better things to do than spend time patrolling neighborhood gardens, and I'm baffled that anyone actually responded to such a call. With ticketing cars such a humiliating pastime in Philadelphia, perhaps "Garden Wars" is next in line. Regardless, I can only imagine your shock at such a complaint, particularly coming from someone you know. Take some time to sit with the absurdity of it all before approaching your neighbor, and even then, remember that this will be a story you can always tell about something totally ridiculous that happened to you.

    First, though, in order to be an unbiased advice columnist, I have to ask you to consider, honestly, whether your weeds are out of control. I am a terrible gardener, so I wouldn't be any sort of judge of what is reasonable, but this is something you're investing time and energy into, so hopefully you know what amount of weed coverage is to be expected and what needs to be controlled, both for the health of the vegetables and for the image you want your home to project. If your weeds are taller than you'd like them to be, next time you see your neighbor, say, "I had a busy week at work, but the weeds will be taken care of this weekend. Next time, feel free to drop me a friendly hint rather than calling in an official complaint."

    If your weeds are already plenty neat, this is a sign of a controlling, vengeful or perhaps disturbed neighbor, despite any seemingly good relationship you've had in the past. Anyone who calls in a complaint like this rather than either 1) talking to you directly or 2) ignoring it because it's none of his business is someone about whom you should be concerned. He may be extremely lonely and looking for someone to validate his curmudgeonliness, or he may actually not be able to distinguish between something harmful and something benign. I would start by talking to other neighbors and saying something like, "Is Ned all right? He did something really out of character, and I'm concerned." I'm not sure you'll get any useful information, but at least other neighbors will know that something is up, particularly because they're likely to ask you the follow up question of, "What did he do?" 

    If you feel comfortable doing so, bring your spouse/another neighbor/an unbiased friend with you, and knock on his door. Tell him you were really surprised to hear that he was unhappy with the state of your garden, and next time,  you would hope that he would come to you directly. Add that you are carefully tending your garden and, if you're feeling charitable, tell him that you would be happy to bring him some tomatoes when they are ready. Emphasize that it is your garden and your business and there should be no concern among neighborly neighbors about citations from the city for imagined infractions. I realize you probably won't be able to say all that, but fantasizing about all the things you'd like to say will also be cathartic, so you should allow yourself that daydream before knocking on his door. 

    Finally, for the rest of the summer, take pride in your garden and your ability to keep your cool, even when people around you are being unreasonably punitive. You know what sort of garden and image you want to share with the world, and getting embroiled in a battle with a potentially unhinged neighbor would be a terrible way to spend your time. Enjoy your time outdoors, enjoy your corn and enjoy taking the high road in how you handle this situation.

    Be well,