A Beautifully Landscaped Buffet

Wild time was not in our plans. Seeking green space and privacy, we moved to a quiet neighborhood of ample lawns, trees, and gardens. For years I had pored over gardening magazines cluttering our small apartment. I had studied nursery catalogs when the only piece of earth designated mine was a parking space. Now we had land. Soon we would have perennials as well as a mortgage. And once we got the knack of lawn mowing, we would cultivate no mere yard but a sanctuary of natural wonders. Our own little green world.

But no. We are not alone in this place we call "ours."

"Wow," murmured my husband as he brought in the morning paper. I glanced up from my breakfast, expecting news. Instead, I got flowers - actually, a single bloom, stemless. Its delicate sculpture of white petals was brushed with brilliant yellow. In my husband's outstretched palm lay a Dutch iris, the perfect vision of botanical splendor that I'd hoped would emerge outside any day. It looked just like the picture on the bag of bulbs that I had gripped in my dirt-encrusted fist one chilly fall afternoon as I read directions for planting depth. Surely my husband knew better than to pick the landscaping.

"It was lying on the ground," he explained quickly. Was this the latest trick of the neighborhood prankster who had splattered our jack-o'-lantern in the street last October? My husband carefully smoothed crumpled petals and filled a cereal bowl with water. The white blossom floated like a question left unanswered.

Warmer weather brought wonders - and mystery. Like most gardeners, I encountered daily surprises of shoots and buds giving way to full color and form. Sometimes I waited in vain for green to emerge from unyielding dirt. Other flowers met the same strange fate of the amputated iris.

On our property lurked unexplained phenomena: Signs of previous plantings. Holes in the ground. Remains of a circular flower bed that suggested ruins. Leaves rustled in unseen areas. Sometimes we heard noises in the night. Occasionally, shadows would dart across the lawn and into the ivy. Still I dug in, determined to cultivate nature.

The lawn grew as quickly as my "things to do" list. Our routine went from ambitious to busy. The yard progressed from lush to shaggy. Then one afternoon, as we were coming up the walk, a sight in the grass stopped us in our tracks.

"Look," my husband pointed.

On the lawn was a rabbit. It was not poised in a sleek silhouette of attention, the stance of wildlife sensing danger. This plump bunny lay sprawled in the overgrown grass. It gazed at us calmly and chewed, as if to say, "Thanks, folks - your sloth is my salad." Even our laughter did not interrupt its dining pleasure.

We actually thought it was cute.

THEN came the showdown on the patio. Intent on making our humble rectangle of concrete blocks a more inviting place, I lugged home a hardy hibiscus that promised to bloom red and tolerate heat. As I was transplanting it into an Italian terra-cotta pot, I thought of Rome and its passionate container gardens that grace every balcony and rooftop.

Wiping away dirt and sweat, I felt the satisfaction of turning barren space into garden.

A week passed. The hibiscus bloomed, its flowers vibrantly scarlet. The sight made the temperature feel less oppressive and more tropical. The new sense of place drew us outdoors with our grill and plates. We dined alfresco among the flowers.

But not for long. Days later, the hibiscus was a few scraggly twigs and tattered leaves. Around the plant's base lay gnawed-off stubs and scattered dirt.

Setting the container on a lawn chair, I recalled a neighbor's response to my bunny-at-the-salad-bar story: slingshot. But wasn't "fauna" supposed to go with "flora"? I pondered the concept of territorial rights as I examined a ragged blossom. Where did my patio and this creature's habitat converge? Dominating this was a more pragmatic question: How to keep these beasts out of my flowers?

My father-in-law, a certified master gardener, offered advice. Rabbits are a widespread problem, he acknowledged. Lack of both predators and open space has made the problem worse. Try sprinkling cayenne pepper around the plants.

By the time I got up the courage to plant again, chrysanthemum season had arrived. On a whim that overcame discouragement, I bought a blooming plant, mauve and full. This time I trooped back to the patio, armed not only with a trowel but with a package of Cajun spice mix as well.

"Try that," I muttered as I finished this well-seasoned, seasonal planting. As an extra deterrent, I set out a dish of carrots and lettuce ("rabbit food").

The new mum quickly thinned out. Before long, a plump brown presence, ears extended and tail visible, appeared. He hopped past the relish tray, straight toward the flowers. And soon he had company. Another rabbit joined him for the clay-pot special - Cajun chrysanthemums at the bunny buffet. By evening, nothing remained in the container but stem, roots, and spicy dirt.

Maybe next time I'll try pure cayenne pepper. Garlic is another suggested remedy, except that my results are likely to be petunias primavera.

I could use hanging baskets, or some contraption twisted out of chicken wire. I won't bother with the latest tip (liberal doses of scented soap shavings), as our rabbits would take it as a cue to wash up before supper. I'll need multiple solutions, since the rabbits also seem to have heard that this is a nice place to put down roots and raise a family.

One thing is clear as I draw plans for "our" piece of earth: We do not garden alone.

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