Hard work and dumpsters coax beauty from chaos

My best friend was left a half acre piled six-dumpster-loads high with decaying lumber, rusted and knotted wire, broken tools, warped shelves full of spoiled canned goods, and 13 nonfunctioning refrigerators serving as storage sheds for books, plastic containers, household chemicals, and more. All of this surrounded and exploded out of a tiny pink house built in the 1940s out of discarded lumber from a nearby military camp.

My friend became a familiar face at the local landfill drop-off and built up his deltoids and biceps tossing detritus into dumpster after dumpster parked in front of the little pink house. Meanwhile, I transplanted herbs into a 3- by-12-foot area my son and I had cleared of rotting lumber, scrap wire, and overgrown morning-glory vines.

The soil, covered for years with decaying organic matter, was actually the best on the property. (We live in a land of chalk and clay that sticks like glue, then hardens like cement.)

I transplanted artemesias, sages, santolinas, lavender, yarrows and cooking herbs. At first, the plants seemed reluctant to take hold. Perhaps they felt as discouraged about the undertaking as we did.

We were all recent transplants to a new environment, buffeted with weird winter weather - hot days, freezing nights, exceptionally wet rainy spells. By early spring, the plants appeared to be worn out.

Suddenly, though, after the last of the rainy spells, the herb plants quadrupled in size. As the season progressed into summer, each plant took its turn to bloom. (I had tried to plant an assortment of early and late bloomers.)

The herbs were not showy, like roses and such, but their blossoms were sweet, attractive to nectar-seekers, and lovely in their subtle ways. There were neighbors with well-established shrubs, hedges, lawns, and flowers. My efforts would not have shown well in a garden competition.

Likewise, the neighbors had normal houses (some fancy, some not), all of which looked well-mannered, presentable, and orderly. My friend's efforts to tame the chaos of his little pink inheritance did not compare well, even after a year of cleaning, repairing, painting, and more.

Still, we had a quiet victory when we stood back and admired our endeavors. My friend, my son, and I know what we were handed - a junkyard - and we know what it has become: a home and a garden.

I still must weed out the morning-glory on a regular basis, and my friend and my son still work on improvements. They just finished painting the exterior of the house forest green.

We have come a long way. We did not give in to hopelessness. And the neighbors do notice. The other day, a friend across the street said she thought the exterior paint job was great: "The house doesn't jump out and say, 'Hi! I'm pink!' anymore. It's camouflaged."

That was the effect for which my friend had strived. When I told him that his hard work had been acknowledged by a neighbor, his face lit up with pride.

I now know that it is possible to take a chaotic situation and coax beauty and order from it. If the three of us could handle a half acre of junkyard, just think of the possibilities if more people got together to tackle larger wastelands. Whether we make our own messes, or others leave them for us, we can grow gardens out of garbage.

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