Searching for Democracy and the Zen Way in a Box Hedge

crabapple about to blossomI live in a place with a communal garden. It’s a lovely garden. A bit disheveled maybe, but for me, that’s part of the charm. There’s always something to delight in – violets springing up in the lawn, the crabapple blossom in spring, the turtleheads in fall, a cardinal singing in the blue spruce, a piliated woodpecker (if we’re lucky) at the back, any number of little brown birds, a rose that manages a glorious bloom despite the best efforts of invading ivy from the car park behind the fence to strangle it.

After years of adding a little something here, a little something there in a rather haphazard fashion, it’s been decided the garden needs an overhaul. A major spruce up. A total redesign.

Lucky you? Is that what you’re saying?

The trouble is, being a communal garden means changes have to be made collaboratively and unfortunately (for me) the taste of my neighbours on the garden committee is very different from mine.

They enjoy tidy, organized, formal gardens. What I call ‘controlled’ gardens or, in my more bad-tempered moments ‘institutional’ gardens. City gardens with typical city flowers. Certainly not the kind of gardens where tomatoes might sneak in as were spied in an individual patch of private garden directly in front of one of the houses (not guilty, although I did grow lettuce and herbs in my window box at the back).

I like wild flower gardens, woodland gardens. I like a more natural, casual look. I love colour. Lots of colour.

The proposal suggests a formal garden.

Obviously the garden design will go with the majority vote. I am the outlier here.

I sit at the table with my neighbours, pouring over the designs of the new garden.

pileated woodpeckerThe old characterful lampposts – gone. The blue spruce – gone. The gnarly crabapple – gone. The hydrangeas will stay but the colorful patches of flowers will become bands of plants with white flowers. A sweet umbrella crabapple replaced by a red oak. Lines of box hedges between houses and garden will straighten the somewhat wiggly path. Box hedges? I don’t believe it. Really? Box hedges? Surely not!

I grind my teeth.

The perfect moment to walk the zen path.rose

In his post, Letting Go of the Need for Control, Leo Babauta (Zen Habits) suggests “let[ting] the urge [to control a situation] happen. Just sit there and see the urge, feel it, be with it.”

So I do. I sit there, angry, sad, frustrated.

I help myself to a scoop of chocolate covered raisins from the bowl on the table to stop myself saying something I’ll be sorry for later.

Now Babauta urges me to “turn to the moment and see the beauty of what’s in front of me.”

What beauty? Well, I suppose the red oak will look pretty stunning. But I’m still angry, sad and frustrated.

Another scoop of chocolate raisins.

I can’t let our lovely garden go. I’ll fight for one thing, I decide, munching away. What one thing is really important to me?

I hate box hedges. You may love them and I’m happy that you do. I don’t have a problem with that. I just have a problem with box hedges in my garden. A prissy, straight line of box hedge in front of my house, boxing me in, cutting me off from the rest of the garden. They are small-minded, marking off everyone’s bit of territory, and marking off living space from garden. They make me think of municipal gardens, institutions.

Oh my poor wildflowers – kept firmly in their place by a box hedge. As if there wasn’t enough shade already!

One more scoop of chocolate raisins. I suddenly remember being told that democracy does not mean that everyone gets everything they want and lives happily ever after. It means everyone has to give up something they really want in order for the majority to coexist as contentedly as possible.

So I have to give up something, let something go. What?

The turtleheads. The astilbe and the dwarf lilacs. The old lampposts. The crabapple (it’s not in great health, but is so pretty in spring).

Have I given up enough yet?crabapple blossom

I’m still mad and sad. I feel I’ve given up more than my fair share. Why can’t they give up something? Like the box hedges?

When do I get to keep something that the others have to let go?

I’ve finished the chocolate covered raisins and my mouth opens. Too late to stop myself.

I launch into a tirade about the box hedges. My neighbours listen.

Perhaps that is the positive – the beauty – in this frustrating situation? That I’m sitting at a table with neighbours, nice friendly neighbours who are always ready to help in a moment of need (even if they’re totally misguided about gardens). Sitting right next to me is the wife of the kind neighbour who took in me and my dog that rainy day (both of us drenched) when I forgot my key. He welcomed me in, sat me down and chatted with me all afternoon until my husband was able to come home.

They let me vent, trying at least to understand my antipathy towards lines of box hedges. They are doing me the courtesy of listening.

I’m not able to persuade them to change their minds. It still looks like the box hedge is going to win the day. But they’ve listened.

Democracy is a tough business.

And this is only a garden we’re trying to organize, a small garden at that.

Imagine a country.

Wait! I think I’m beginning to see the beauty of what is in front of me after all!


What fun it would be to sculpt a box hedge in front of my house.Montreal Botanical Gardens


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