The Condo Garden and the Sea Captain

Would my beautiful tree have to go?

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY RUSSELL THORNTON

For the past 11 years, I have lived in a condominium. Having a condo definitely has its advantages. I enjoy lawns that I never mow. I expect to walk on shoveled sidewalks after Winter snowstorms. And I swim in a clean, never-crowded pool in the Summer.

All I have to do is endure the rules—the many rules. Cars can be washed only in the car wash area between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Visitors must place a parking pass on the driver’s side dashboard of their vehicles. Balconies and patios must be kept free of all items other than patio furniture and pot-ted houseplants—no vegetables allowed. Dogs must weigh 35 pounds or less, be kept on a leash when outside, and be walked only in the doggie walk area. Cats, too, must be kept on a leash when outside. I actually tried to train my cat to use a leash. She pathetically wrapped her leash around a tree and cowered in fear. It was about as successful as the time I tried to brush her teeth with the toothbrush the vet gave me.

He pointed his cane right at my Oriental pine and said, “And then that one is coming down.”

I realized that I was going to have to learn how to “accommodate” certain condo restrictions. With my cat, I did what a dozen other cat owners did. I let her out after dark. No complaints!

There was one rule I really wasn’t going to be able to bear. All owners must present their garden plans to the Grounds and Maintenance Committee and obtain approval before any plants can be planted in front of their units. This was just too much!

One Saturday, I visited Behnke’s nursery and looked at trees and shrubs that could grow in a shady garden (my front yard gets only partial sun). After a considerable amount of comparing and consulting, I drove away with a beautiful black Oriental pine and a bushy blue pfister juniper. As soon as it grew safely dark, I planted these beauties (with some help from a couple of names-kept-secret assistants). The next day the trees were “just there,” and no one said a word.

Several nights later, azalea bushes appeared in my front gar-den. The next spring, hostas and pachysandras showed up. Then impatiens and begonias began to bloom in the midst of coleus, caladiums, and dusty millers. Blue-flowering lobelia began to climb over rocks. In July, the happy yellow faces of black-eyed Susans emerged. After several months of night work, I had created two incredible, beautiful gardens—if I do say so myself.

For a while, I held my breath, fearful I would get a letter of reprimand from the condo Board of Directors. Instead, the only reaction I received came from neighbors who stopped to admire my creation. “I just love the colors in your garden!” they’d say. Or “I admire your garden every day when I walk past it to the metro.”

The pool is where everyone who lives in our condominium seems to meet their neighbors. In the summertime, I would swim quite a bit. When someone would ask me where I lived, I would just say, “Oh, I’m the gardener!”

“You are the gardener!” they would exclaim, pointing in the direction of my unit.

“Well, yes I am,” I would beam.

Years passed, and my gardens flourished. My trees, which had been under the four-foot-height regulation limit when planted were now much taller. The black Oriental pine had reached my third-floor balcony. The condo newsletter printed editorials from individuals concerned about the height of some plants on the property. Although not a religious person, I started saying prayers for my trees. My fears did not subside the Fall day I met Lester LaForce, a member of the Board, out walking his dog.

Lester is a short, squat guy in his 60s who frequently walks with a cane due to arthritis. He usually wears a tan cap and holds a pipe in his mouth, right under his bushy mustache. To say that Lester is outspoken is an understatement. In fact, he rarely con-verses—he mostly bellows. “Good day there!” he loudly greets neighbors. “Slow down!” he shouts at passing drivers. He reminds me of an old sea captain. And you know what? I found out he had worked as one in his earlier years.

That Fall afternoon, Lester told me that the Grounds and Maintenance Committee had decided to cut down the old crab apple trees that belonged to the condominium and were adjacent to my gardens. I protested, but could tell that it was no use. The decision had been made. Then he pointed his cane right at my black Oriental pine and said, “And then that one is coming down.”

I froze. My heart stopped. It felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. I watched silently as Lester hobbled away.

What could I do if I received the dreaded letter from the Committee ordering that my tree come down? I’d have to do some-thing! I’d go to them and plead my case—the tree wasn’t hurting anybody! If that didn’t work, I’d get a lawyer! For days, every time I came home, I feared I’d find that official letter in my mailbox.

Winter came. One night, a severe ice storm hit the area. I looked out the window the next morning and saw that everything was coated with a beautiful silver layer of ice. Then I looked at my garden—and gasped. My black Oriental pine was lying on the ground! The ice had uprooted it. I put on my coat and boots and carefully slipped across the patio to my precious tree. I tried to pick it up, but it was too heavy.

Then down the sidewalk came Lester LaForce walking his dog. He saw me and said, “Your tree fell.”

I couldn’t speak. I just looked at him and nodded.

Then he said, “Wait until the ice melts off of it. I’ll get some help, and we’ll tie your tree to the railing.” He pointed the end of his cane to the balcony above my head.

I was stunned beyond belief. “Thank you. Thank you,” I muttered, my voice shaking. I knew that if we could get that tree upright in the next few days, it might be saved.

Sure enough, the next day Lester returned with another neighbor and a short ladder. They raised my tree—and saved it.

Soon after, I was talking to a different condo neighbor and telling her how Lester LaForce had been the hero who saved my beloved tree. To my surprise, she told me that she had seen Lester capture a mother duck and her five ducklings who had kept wandering close to a busy road. He had caught them somehow and driven them 45 minutes to Avery Lake so they could live out their lives in safety. I guess there is more to the old sea captain than meets the eye.

Isn’t that true of so many of us?


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