What is a garden, anyway?

Edwardian Gertrude Jekyll saw her garden as a picture to be painted with living plants. Joy Morton of Morton Salt fame gardened with trees, amusing himself with discovering how many different types he could grow at his Chicago-area estate, now the 1,700-acre Morton Arboretum.

My backyard neighbor, the retired sixty-something Jim, believes that gardening is all about growing as many vegetables as possible—and sharing them. His quarter-acre is full of raised boxes of earth in which he squeezes tomato plants, a patch of green beans, onions, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, radishes, and an abundance of herbs and flowers. I'm likely to find a fistful of baby zucchini left on the steps in July, or a basket of ripe tomatoes on my porch in August.

For Jerry, a renowned natural landscaper whose backyard also bumps up against my own, gardening is all about diversity. He plants native flowers, trees, and grasses, and can effortlessly spout off the Latin names of the more than 350 varieties in his yard. Every spring Jerry burns his yard to stimulate the new growth of prairie plants and wildflowers …

… Which incites the wrath of my other next-door neighbors, who call the fire department when Jerry burns his yard each spring. Their idea of a garden involves Kentucky bluegrass Chem-lawned to blinding greenness, wood chips and concrete statuary, and a team of immigrant landscapers with power machinery swooping into the yard at regular intervals. Nary a dandelion dares raise its fairy-like sphere on that swath of pristine emerald. For them, gardening is a statement about conforming and keeping up appearances.

At the intersection of all this is my yard, where the garden is a sort of experimental ...

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