Gardening as community building – an ode to my neighbour

Perhaps my favourite things about having becoming a gardener, aside from the self-satisfied pride I feel when I chop my garlic or eat my tomatoes, is the space it has made for me to build relationships with my neighbours and others.

This has taken a range of forms for me, but one in particular has been my relationship with my across-the-road neighbour whom for this post I will call T.

T is what most Aussies would call a character. He’s probably fifty-something, gregarious, nosey, honest, kind and the main reason my street is such a nice place to live. T plays kick to kick with the kids on the street and makes sure they don’t get run over, he mows the lawns of anyone he thinks might benefit (no permission asked), he brings people’s bins in after they’ve been emptied, and visits all the ageing people on the street to make sure they’re ok. He knows everything that is happening or has ever happened on our street.

On the day I moved in I had a 30 minute conversation with T before I even got in the door. A few days later he came over to check on me and found me digging out the grass and weeds in the vegie patch. He left and came back with a shovel and some broccoli seedlings, and helped me dig for a few hours.

T is also a person who suffers from mental illness. He has depression, and had a stroke some year’s ago, a combination which has left him with difficulty finding work and staying employed, and managing relationships.

One of T’s idiosyncrasies is that he isn’t very clear on the generally-accepted social boundaries. I’m not sure if he never was or if this is part of the affects of the stroke, but in any case he can’t seem to help asking awkward questions, and getting involved where others wouldn’t. He plays with other people’s pets and kids, he ‘fixes’ other peoples gardens and mows their lawns. It’s benevolent, but odd.

I am an introverted person, and even though I’m friendly and chatty I can get very insular to protect myself from the exhaustion I feel after too much social contact. Especially because I always find myself in people-based jobs. It’s what I’m good at, but I can only do it for so many hours a day. I’ve also had my share of mental illness, with an anxiety disorder with depressive undertones, and I get what T is dealing with.

T wants to be involved, wants to help, needs company and a sense of purpose. T’s care manifests in a barrage of questions nearly daily – why doesn’t Mr have a job? Is my Mum single? Who was that person who visited me yesterday? When am I going to have kids? If I’m such a greenie, why do I have a car? How come vegans don’t eat eggs? Why don’t I buy my house? If I win the lotto will I buy the house? If T wins the lotto and gives me the money, will I buy the house? (T does not like change and doesn’t want any new neighbours.)

I want to look out for him the way he looks out for me and Mr and everyone else, but I also want privacy and space. In small doses he’s fun, but on a daily basis I get tired.

Recently, I’ve found a way to keep us both happy. Now we mostly talk gardening.

This is a topic I can natter on about forever, hence the blog, and it’s usually something I can manage even when I’m tired. We share tips, and plants and seeds, and argue over things like whether to till and what to do about aphids. Yesterday I took over some punnets of lettuce I grew from seed, and T came over a little later with two glorious tomato plants he grew from the seeds of a tomato he bought at the green grocer.

Tomato from neighbour

Tomato from neighbour – it is so much bigger than mine!

Better yet, this gardening discussion involves most of the street now. I catch the early train with another neighbour, who gave me some caper plants (mine are struggling) and who keeps our whole street in capers. Our conversation is always centred on plants and pest-management. On hot nights it is common to find a gaggle of people standing out the front of T’s place, leaning on the fence discussing tree pruning or making plans for night-raids to “borrow” cuttings and plants from the nearby, well-manicured cemetery.

T’s front garden, and mine increasingly due to his favours, is a glorious mish-mash of all the best plants in the neighbourhood. He takes cuttings and seeds from people, usually offered after he has weeded or dug or mended or pruned for them (sometimes at them). He is brilliant at making beautiful plants from sticks and seeds, his front yard is gorgeous. Mine has benefitted from his community-building efforts, displaying dahlias, violets, succulents and irises salvaged from the weeding and trimming of others.

It isn’t all succulents and violets though. T is unwell. Depression is a hard bastard to manage, and he isn’t always winning. Looking after T has become a street-wide endeavour. M makes him dinner some days, I send over soup every few weeks and check in to make sure he doesn’t shirk his appointments. A few of the tradies have given him work where there is day-labouring required, and all the older women bake for him. There is a weekly Friday bin-fire meeting of the street’s codgers which seems to start around 4pm and which you can hear from my place when they get rowdy, and T is always in attendance.

I’m not sure I really have a point here, so concluding seems difficult. I think I just wanted to note down, here for others to see, how something as crappy as depression, and as complicated, socially-unjust, and common as a person with a disability facing social exclusion, unemployment and loneliness, has created something great.

Through T’s efforts to watch out for everyone, and through our collective efforts to look out for him, our street feels more like a ‘community’ than anywhere I’ve ever lived.



Keira blogs at NotYourNansVegiePatch and  Around the World Vegan.


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