On being nosy, I mean neighborly

Like most projects, I underestimated how long tree planting
would actually take. The answer being: For-ever. In another post
I’ll share what I learned from one hole to the next.

I stood in the middle of a 4×4 foot pit, shovel in hand, sun beating down, sweat dripping, dirt caking my sneakers, hefting clods of sodden clay toward the street. A passing dogwalker, a crusty fellow in his 70s, matted mutt at his side, remarked: “Ah, the pride of ownership.” Yeah, something like that.

Since May I’ve been hell bent to improve the look of our front yard. I began with the planter boxes (see here for before and after photos) and soon set my eyes on shade trees. Thanks to a hot tip from my mail carrier, I called up the Sacramento Tree Foundation and found that I could get trees, for free! Plus a certified community forester would help me select the varietals and decide where to place them. At the end of a 15 minute appointment, I signed up to receive a Little Leaf Linden and two Chanticleer pears, trees that are both hardy and beautiful, don’t drop a lot of crap all year long (recall my whining about oak trees), turn pretty colors in the fall, and also attract bees.

And this is what happens when you run into irrigation pipe
on your third and final hole. Of course my neighbors just
had to be riding bikes with their kids as I involuntarily
screeched and threw my shovel and stamped my feet. (Truly)

Sadly, this marvelous service didn’t come with ditch diggers, so I was left to play in the dirt all by my lonesome. With my trusty tree planting guide, I plotted out a 4×4 square, digging down 18 inches with a 10 inch pedestal in the middle. The root ball sits on the elevation and the surrounding depth encourages strong root growth, so they say. After several hours attacking, shoveling and wheelbarrowing away mounds of clay, one tree was happily plugged into earth. One down, two to go.

And then came the commentary.

As I worked on trench two, passersby noted the grandeur of my digging. My, what big holes you have. Others asked what I was doing as if excavating soil with a small tree nearby wasn’t obvious. And a couple gave advice. You really need to dig a well. Aren’t you going to line that with rock? Have you used vitamin B? Didn’t you turn in soil amendment? You can’t let grass get near the trunk. I’m pretty sure the sun will explode if you let grass get near the trunk.

I smiled and chatted and gave everyone’s advice consideration. Until Saturday morning. While walking Goliath around the block, I was ambushed by the nosiest neighbor of them all. The first words out of his mouth were “Your rootball is too high you know.” Good morning to you, too, sir. I said I was following the directions given to me (mentally sassing him, of course. I’m a grad student, I research e-ver-y-thing). He persisted. I deflected. He said I chose the wrong trees. I should have asked him for some birch saplings. He told me my sprinklers would drown them. He said I should’ve used a post-hole digger. I could borrow his if I wanted. As he offered a litany of unsolicited advice, I smiled while his wife tried to keep her terrier from assaulting Goliath and then beat a quick retreat. Mental note: Change walking route!

Mr. T acted as if this hole was 10 feet wide and
challenged me to lie down next to it to measure.
So I did. It’s just barely five feet across. And
don’t worry, it’ll be lined with rock soon!

Trying not to take his critique personally, I went back to my work. I tried not to wonder if he would have been so forceful and assertive with a male neighbor. I tried not to berate myself for being meek. I tried to think he was just being neighborly. Until he drove by my house the next morning–a route that is completely out of his way–to check my progress and again, offer critique. Seriously?!

By the end of that same day, tired from shoveling and having hours to think while shoveling, I was a bit punchy. Mr. T got the brunt of it when he pulled up along side me and seemed aghast at the size of my newest square. (Okay, I got a little carried away, but five feet is not astronomically larger than four feet, dammit.) I may or may not have shouted at the top of my lungs: NO ONE GETS TO MAKE ANY MORE COMMENTS UNLESS THEY PICK UP A SHOVEL AND HELP DIG FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. There may or may not have been expletives somewhere in there, for emphasis only, of course.

So I got to thinking, how does one go from neighborly to nosy? Where is the line? And how on earth do you deal with a nosy rosey who lives next door or around the corner? I find myself dealing with some “dialetical tension” to throw in a nerd phrase. I want both community and privacy, neighborhood recognition and anonymity. I’d like to think that my neighbors care enough to check in on us if we disappeared suddenly. But I’d also be pleased if they stopped paying quite so much attention to what we do and don’t do, at least in the yard* realm. Know what I’m sayin’?

How do you relate to your neighbors? Chummy best** friends? Hatfield and McCoy style? What neighbors? Do tell.


*Maybe I’m just paranoid as an admittedly new gardener? One of my friends recently copped to planting after dark so people can’t see… perhaps that’s part of it.

** The fabulous news? Some of our actual best friends live around the corner from us. They are obviously exempt from any “neighbor” bitching.

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