An American at Swiss gardening boot camp

My balcony garden was a disgrace, but my neighbor knew exactly what to do.

COLORFUL DISPLAY: Red geraniums hang from a balcony in Switzerland.

Don’t get me wrong. I love planting flowers. It’s just the watering, trimming, and weeding that I’m prone to forget. So naturally, I’ve always enjoyed the fall, when blankets of red and gold cover my neglected garden, causing me to forget for another few months that my thumb will never be green.

But then I moved from my tree-filled yard in Richmond, Va., to an apartment in Switzerland so my husband could pursue a work opportunity. While my new home included a wraparound balcony with an already built-in bounty of little bushes, herbs, and some other suitable plants, it did not include my usual cover, the tree.

Nevertheless, I was happy to inherit such a simple container garden. No grass meant no mowing, so with the extra time, I attempted some watering and trimming. And even though my Swiss geraniums failed to cascade in neat bunches over the edges of our concrete planters as Swiss geraniums always do, I considered myself a success and “planted” a little American flag in the midst of it all.

Of course, I couldn’t compete on my neighbor’s level. Over the summer, her balcony was filled with exactly 151 geraniums (all cascading in the proper Swiss fashion). Each plant was treated with the amount of care only she could give. Weeds were pulled out before someone like me could tell they were weeds. Fading flowers were clipped off before they had finished fading. And even in autumn, every stray leaf was immediately swept up.

While our 73-year-old neighbor called her container garden her “paradise,” ours was about to be labeled a “Katastrophe.”
Unfortunately, this was one of those German words so close to English that I could figure out its meaning. So there was no imagining she was praising my efforts when our neighbor appeared one week, asking innocently, “May I go on your balcony?”

When I let her inside the apartment, she immediately ran out to the balcony, like an eager kid running from the car to a playground. It was then that I noticed she was wearing knee-high rubber boots and carrying a trimmer, a bucket, a broom, and a few other items that looked foreboding.

“This is a Katastrophe,” she said, as she examined one plant after another. “These must be trimmed before winter.”

She looked in our gutter and gave a look of dismay at the mud and leaves that had dared to enter it.

“This is a Katastrophe,” she said again, while I alternated between trying not to laugh and feeling totally ashamed.
Then she looked behind each planter, where, unknown to me, rebel leaves were hanging out. “This is terrible, she said. “These must be cleaned out. We are getting new windows next year.”

As I tried to figure out the connection between new windows and some stray leaves behind planters, my neighbor had gotten down on her hands and knees and was sweeping behind each one with a broom.

In between her sweeps and swoops, she would glance up at me, the hopeless nongardener that I was, as if she were taking my lack of gardening ability personally.

I tried to make amends by sweeping as well, but everything I did, she made a point of redoing, so after a while I just alternated between picking up leaves and staring, my thoughts a combination of helplessness, amazement, and annoyance.

After sweeping, it was time for hosing, and she began blasting the gutters with water, following up with more broom sweeps. Two hours later, whether I liked it or not, my gutters were not just unmuddied, but unrivaled in their shininess.

The next day, my neighbor appeared at my front door with a large machine. And I knew right away that balcony gardening boot camp, Part 2, was about to begin.

Even though I had never associated a pressure washer with gardening before, I realized there was no point in protesting. I was a foreigner in Switzerland, and it was time to learn from the locals.

So I just smiled, let her in, and six hours later, laid back and enjoyed my shiny concrete balcony complete with drinkable gutter water.

As I sank into my wicker chair, a weary boot camp survivor, I saw autumn’s most recent victim – a stray leaf on my balcony.

I thought it was pretty, but I knew that my neighbor would have been horrified. So in her honor, I scooped it up, gave it a lecture, and then sent it packing, blowing it off my hand and watching as it floated to the street below, where, fortunately, the street sweeper was just passing by.

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