Robert Frost wrote that “good fences make good neighbors.” But I believe that gardens make the best neighbors. I live in a condominium community that’s located on 72 acres of land where wildlife is abundant and three streams converge before flowing into the French Broad River. When it was built in the 1970s, it was in the country.
It is now an oasis in busy, over-developed, south Asheville. People choose to live here because of the natural beauty. Contributing to that are 18 community gardens, each plot as different as the gardeners who cultivate them. We come from different backgrounds. Most of us are transplants; a few are Asheville natives. What we share is the need to put our hands in the dirt, nourish the soil, tend a seed, and share the fruits of our labors. This has produced strong friendships.
Some of us are experienced gardeners; others are novices. But gardening is a great equalizer, and among us there is no judgment. We share gardening advice, plants and produce, although no one can find homes for those baseball bat-sized zucchini. We delight in new horticultural adventures, like growing celery and artichokes. As the summer wears on and the blight withers tomato foliage and Mexican bean beetles turn lush leaves into lace, we commiserate over the challenges of growing old favorites. We visit while doing our morning and evening watering, knowing that our efforts won’t compensate for June’s brutally hot, dry, windy days, but may keep our gardens going until the rains come again.
These little gardens are also a source of pride for the larger community. Often, I see non-gardeners strolling through them with a spouse, children, or grandchildren in tow to see what’s in bloom and to watch butterflies feed on the abundant pollinator-friendly plants. (We are certified as an official Monarch butterfly waystation.) This is where our community gathers in the spring and summer for our annual garden parties, complete with festive hats and libations. There is an air of frivolity and joy over being able to celebrate once again. Whether we realize it or not, these parties are knitting our community together in ways few occasions can.
In May, just weeks after our spring garden party where he served up mimosas, we lost a beloved gardener to MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus. Within days he succumbed to the deadly bacteria. We are still grieving. He was one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever known. His legendary dahlias, which he was quick to share, are blooming now. Like everything else he planted, they are being tended by his fellow gardeners. It’s helping us process our grief and honor his memory. For our community, those splashy dahlias will be a constant reminder of him and the way he lived, with abundant joy and grace.
That’s the thing about gardens. They cultivate memories. A recent LinkedIn message reminded me of this. “I’m wondering if you are the Janet Moore who wrote a piece about the Fullers and their flowers?” a man inquired. He went on to explain that he was doing genealogical research on his father’s Canadian family and my contribution to Soil-full Musings had popped up.
The piece was about my love of dahlias and gladioli, but it was also a tribute to Alma and George Fuller, my grandparents’ hard scrabble tenant farmers who eked out a living off the thin, rocky soil of the Laurentian Shield in Canada. Alma grew spectacular dinner plate dahlias. George grew magnificent gladioli and vegetables that he trucked into Ottawa’s Baywater Market. It was their flowers and their ever-increasing population of barn cats that impressed me as a child, and I wasn’t alone. I have a vague recollection of this kind, resilient couple. She was plump and chatty; he was thin and taciturn. We’ll see how accurate I am when my new Colorado friend sends me pictures of them taken with their flowers in 1972, shortly after they got electricity.
Blogs, social media, and internet connections allowed two strangers, one who lives in Colorado and the other in North Carolina, to connect over shared memories of flowers and barn cats. A community garden serves as a centerpiece which gathers neighbors together and builds friendships. For some people, good fences may make good neighbors. But I prefer gardens.
Article written by Janet Moore, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.