The Cost of Repurposing a Garden

There’s an assumption about gardeners; namely that we’re peaceable, nature-loving saps. That we’re contemplative, hobbit-like creatures who like to kick back with a cup of chamomile tea and some recreational aspirin and feel very good about ourselves. Much of that is true. But we are also, I believe, a deeply hostile people, marking out territory in roses and beans as aggressively as jaguars in heat. Beneath the surface of every smiling, sun-hatted grower of begonias is a seething crucible of misanthropy.

Balancing those halves is always tricky. When the neighbor on the third floor of the apartment complex next door uses my garden as a dump and lobs rotten produce off his balcony and into the salvias, I think of how his contributions will enrich the soil. I also think of hucking it all back at him, smashing moldy oranges and putrifying avocados against his windows, but I doubt my aim is that good.

Part of living in a city means budgeting for a certain amount of bullshit. I like to think of it as living the more relatable version of the serenity prayer: accepting the bullshit I cannot change, the courage to change the bullshit I can, the wisdom to know the difference.

So when I put in the garden, the why of it was easy. I was tired of neighbors treating it like a trash heap. But the ‘how’ of it. How to make that change so they wouldn’t trash it — or at least would trash it less — was the real challenge, complicated by my unwillingness to spend any more than the minimum amount of money on the yard.

The garden before I began working on it.

I’m a renter, and got evicted from my last apartment. So I know it can all be taken from me. Overcoming that psychological barrier meant living in my current house for a year before I did anything in the way of a garden. Then, once I felt I could take a breath, I checked with the landlord, roommates, and the city for any necessary permits, and set to work transforming the yard.

Nature has no concept of waste. I have no room for crap. By that twin manifesto, I’ve been in a two year process of re-doing the yard by repurposing abandoned wares into useful structures wherein plants can grow, climb over, and thrive. There is a real irony here. To get the neighbors to stop leaving trash in the yard, I had to bring more trash into it. But there’s that useful old expression about “another man’s treasure.”

I’m an urban scavenger, a scrounger, I have an eye to utility. I’m not a packrat. I’m not about to bring home just anything. I’ve already cleared the yard once of broken lawn furniture, bottle caps, aluminum cans, bed springs, alarm clocks, fire pokers, balcony rails, and plastic cups left like the shed carapaces of a vast and festive bloom of alcoholic larva. I have no desire to do it again. But if someone has left an old bed frame on the sidewalk that might become a trellis, or posted a stack of cinder blocks to the free section of Craigslist, I prepare for dive mode and swoop.

The garden as it currently exists.

Since I started working on the garden, here’s a breakdown of everything I’ve spent in landscaping, excluding plants:

Pathways: broken bricks cleaned out from underneath the porch. Some years back the landlord took out the chimney, and stashed all the brick next to the house, where they were covered with the detritus of a decade of neglect.

Borders: wine bottles fished out from the recycling bins. Soaked them to remove the labels, and then stuck them neck first into the soil. Chimney pots were part of a free pile left at the sidewalk. The cinder blocks were free off Craisglist from a construction job that was trying to get rid of leftovers. A few of the cinder blocks were already in situ and merely rearranged.

Arbor: living in a college town means at the end of every academic year, there’s an Ikea box spring on every corner. Tear off the fabric and there’s a skeleton structure suitable for vines. A restaurant renovation a few blocks over supplied the posts that hold it up in the form of an industrial sized pallet that they were happy to be rid of.

Trellis: also a stripped box spring salvaged from the sidewalk, just hung in a different orientation. The posts are also from an oversize pallet.

Bay Guardian newspaper dispenser: this was a bit of personal sentimentality. The San Francisco Bay Guardian was an alt weekly that went out of print in 2014. This dispenser had been sitting out in Berkeley among a row of still active publications, though it was pretty consistently filled with to-go food containers and wadded paper. When a visiting couchsurfer asked if I would like to borrow her car for anything, I suggested we go on a caper. Which we did. And now the dispenser holds my hand tools. RIP Bay Guardian.

Fencing: sourced for free off Craigslist.

Fire pit: also off the free section of Craigslist.

Sand: also sourced for free off Craigslist. It may not be obvious in the photos, but the pathways are graded on a bed of sand, with more sand put on top to fill in the spaces between bricks and bottles. It’s also used to secure the posts of the arbor and the trellis. I couldn’t see putting something so permanent as concrete in the land.

Tools for assembly: I’m fortunate to live very close to a tool library where I can borrow post hole diggers, levels, hammers, power drills, extension cords, and hearing protection for free.

Alastaire Yanta: owl sculpture, left on the sidewalk, named after a cousin

Hose: donated by a landscaper neighbor who no longer needed the extra

275-gallon water tank (not pictured): after moving all the bricks out from under the porch, I had open space to stash a water cube, which I also got for free off Craigslist from a couple who had given up on Burning Man now that they had children and no longer needed a way to store ten days worth of water. The reservoir catches the outflow from the washing machine, which is then used to irrigate the garden. Since I’m the only one in my house with an active green thumb (the roommates are very fond of positioning plants where they can slowly die in pots), it didn’t seem right to use otherwise potable water from the tap, drive up the utility bill and charge everyone for my personal hobby when none of us were doing anything else with the laundry water besides flushing it to the sewer after running a load of colors or whites. Might as well send that water out into the world where it could do some good for poppies and cosmos.

Excluding plants (many, though not all, of which were also sourced for free from friends and neighbors) the only things in these photos I spent money on were nails for the arbor ($3.25) hooks for the trellis ($11.24), one of the concrete blocks ($5 at Urban Ore, the best urban thrift store there ever was) and Buddha ($30) for a total cost of $49.49. (Nails, hooks, and blocks serve a structural function, while Buddha serves a purpose akin to those fiberglass owls some homeowners set out to deter pigeons from messing on their property. I figured neighbors might be less inclined to heave trash into the yard when Buddha is watching. So far, so good. Thanks, Buddha.)

If we were to include all the expenses for non-plant items that I’ve bought in the slightly more than two years I’ve been working on the yard, then it’s an additional $143.78. (Before writing this I walked over to the local hardware store and figure checked the current prices of all the hand tools, gloves, potting soils, and the one bottle of neem oil I bought to tackle mildew, then applied a 9 percent sales tax to the total). Which would make for a new total of $193.27. For the whole two years.

Sometimes I think I’m trying to impress people, or at least myself, when I think about it all. Some people get flashy cars. Some people flex for the gram. Me, I put in work in the garden, and I’m a bit proud of what I’ve done. It’s reassuring to have a creative outlet that visibly reflects and rewards accumulated effort. Like sculpture, I suppose. Or bodybuilding. And to do it in the way I can with what I can reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Lars Eighner’s essay, On Dumpster Diving: “City bees harvest doughnut glaze.”

Creativity thrives on limitation. When you don’t have much to spend on a project, you can make up the difference with time and labor. Sure, arguably, my yard still has trash in it. But this time it’s trash with a purpose. What might be called treasure.

The garden in bloom.

Cirrus Wood is a bike messenger and freelance writer/photographer. He lives in Berkeley and works in San Francisco.

All photos courtesy of the author.

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