Excuse me, I say, is this your garden?
It is the end of the week. I’m extremely tired and have been for a long walk. On my way home, I have caught a woman coming out of a house with a wonderful garden behind the front fence and another on the verge, with sunflowers just starting to bloom. It is one of my favourite parts of this particular regular walking route.
Well, I planted it, yes, she says. She hesitates slightly.
I tell her how much I love it, how I admire it every time I walk past.
She relaxes. She is older than I am by maybe fifteen years. Her hair is short, neat, and dark—quite the opposite of mine: long, unruly, fair. Her face is friendly; eyes, bright. She smiles easily. She tells me about the garden’s history, the difficulties with the local council, the concerns of some of her neighbours. But also about her idea that a garden in this spot could be a small source of joy for passersby.
Do you garden? she asks me.
I do, I tell her, and bemoan the terrible soil in my front garden, which seems to want to grow almost nothing, no matter how much garden waste and compost and spent coffee grounds and green manure and mulch I throw at it. Unlike the back garden, which is overgrown, wild, and full of food. The front garden is a source of ongoing, quiet frustration for me; something almost always at the back of my mind, so that every now and then a possible solution pops into my head.
Have you tried sunflowers? she asks me, they seem to grow anywhere and everywhere, even in terrible soil.
I haven’t tried sunflowers.
She tells me about the garden behind her front fence, fairly well established now, that only two years ago would grow almost nothing because of low soil quality. But sunflowers grew just fine.
I could give you some seeds, she says, I’m sure I’ve got some lying around.
I think I probably I have some sunflower seeds lying around somewhere at home, so I don’t take her up on the offer this time. But we exchange names, and chat about work and households and takeaway dinners on a Friday night. I am struck for about the seven hundredth time since I began gardening just how unlikely it is that I would have met this complete stranger were it not for a garden and a curiosity in me that lends itself to friendliness—a trait that is no doubt amplified by the practice of gardening itself, where curiosity about a plant, a seed, the soil, becomes paying friendly attention: watching, listening.
We talk about succulents. About how many of the succulents in her verge garden have been grown from cuttings. I tell her about the giant jade plant on my parents’ front verandah, grown from a cutting given to my mum by an old housemate and dear friend of mine at the time we lived together.
She tells me to come and knock on her door if I realise I do need sunflower seeds.
I wander home thinking about cities and culture and agriculture and tending to plants; about how many conversations I have had with complete strangers because of a garden; and how the link between cities, culture, agriculture and sociability is so strong and so old that it’s almost invisible. Until someone sows some sunflower seeds on their front verge.