Sara’s Tree Friends

Author’s Note: This is a fictional short story I wrote for a Creative Writing course. Please enjoy!

Throughout the summer, Sara’s vegetable garden, including two sapling apple trees, slowly took over the front of our suburban property. My eleven-year- old daughter was fortunate in her first season with above average rain, and “Farmer” Sara’s crops were
producing nicely. Tomatoes, peppers, corn, squashes of all kinds, and even “yucky” foods like turnips and green beans covered the entire yard all the way up to the sidewalk. The garden was quite the jungle though, with veggies planted in a disorderly and somewhat random fashion, and some, like sunflowers and trellised runner beans, growing up to twelve feet tall.

Today, while going through my mail, I watched out my front window as Sara was tending to one of her apple trees. Sitting on a recycled pizza cardboard box, she knelt down to add yet another “plant friend” to the collection that now surrounded each tree. As she pulled out her beloved orange-handled soil knife to dig a new hole, I noticed Sara talking to the plants. I could not hear what she was saying but it looked like she was scolding some and encouraging others. It was quite the conversation. After inserting the plant’s root ball into the ground, Sara shoveled dirt into the hole, taking care not to damage its young leaves. Then, in a move I did not see coming, she placed worn plastic cups from her childhood doll tea set in front of every plant. Filling the cups from the green metallic watering canister, she seemed to be introducing each friend to the newly arrived plant. It was a plant tea party. Uh, she had a cup in front of her too. Please, for all that is holy, do not drink that fertilizer water! Oh good, she dumped it around the transplant. Grossness averted, I now could get back to the mail.

Looking at each piece, I absently contemplated the fact that we still receive physical mail in this modern world. One would think with all the technology that we had at our fingertips, mail would have gone the way of the blacksmith or buggy whip manufacturer, but here I was, sorting through pieces of paper and cardboard. Hey, what’s this? It was an official looking envelope from City Hall. Maybe it’s a tax refund. Upon opening it, my heart sank. In my hand was a “desist and decease” order giving us 14 days to revert our front yard garden back into acceptable lawn. An anonymous citizen had made a formal complaint, though I had a reasonable idea who this hero was. Immediately, using our landline (yet another antiquated technology), I called the included phone number to see if there was anything we could do. The uninterested bureaucrat on the other end said
there was a city council meeting next Thursday at 6:30 where we could appeal the decision. I told him to put us down on the agenda.

This whole garden adventure had started innocently enough in the spring. One day, upon entering Sara’s room, I had discovered ten or so three-inch tall plants, each with eight or so healthy deep green leaves, growing out of dirt smudged red Solo cups. Black soil specked with white fluffy particles was everywhere, including in the carpet and on the wall. The decaying smell of plant life and earth filled the air. Light from three borrowed makeshift reading lamps provided artificial sunshine and warmth for these young lifeforms. How did she put this all together without me knowing? She was always pulling stuff like this.

I bellowed, “Sara Elizabeth! Could you come here please?”

Coming from downstairs, Sara replied “Uh, sure Dad. What’s up?”

“Could you explain all this . . this. . stuff in your room? It’s a mess in here!”

“Sorry Daddy, but my trees need me”

“Trees? Is that what those are?”

“Remember those organic apples you bought us at the farmer’s market last year? I saved the seeds and planted them.”

“They look like baby trees right now. Where will they live when they grow up?”

“Don’t be silly. I’m planting them out in our yard.”

“Won’t they need cared for? We have water restrictions Sweetie. I can imagine trees drink a lot of water.”

“That’s why we’ll be saving used water just for them.” Sara giggled. “And I’ll pee on them every day!”

Well, that sounded gross but I didn’t want to squelch my little girl’s enthusiasm, so I continued the discussion.

“Won’t the neighbors stare at you when you are out there? I know I can’t URINATE when people are watching me.”

“Oh Dad, I’ll add my pee . . I mean URINE . . . to water inside then take it out. Didn’t you know URINE was a great fertilizer? URINE has nitrogen and phosphorous and other minerals.” She seemed to receive great joy from saying “URINE” over and over again.

“No, that sounds unsanitary to me. Where did you come up with that idea?” I asked.

“The Internet of course. I’ll forward you some links. Your personal email or work one?”

“Use my personal one I guess. Just promise not to spam me.” I answered, trying to get my mind around my little girl’s new interest. I just hoping this wasn’t going the way of last year’s ukulele. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t pay for a top of the line instrument and a full year of lessons for the discount when there’s a child involved. On the flip side, I’m getting pretty good at “Tip Toe Through the Tulips”. I just couldn’t let the money go to waste.

After letting the concept of planting fruit trees in my yard sink in, I decided to encourage Sara. She had never had an easy life. Born as a preemie (thirteen weeks too early), she struggled just to leave the hospital alive, having two surgeries in her first two months of
life. The last three years had been especially rough for both of us, as her mother (and my wife) had unexpectedly passed away. Our marriage had been a traditional one with most of the parenting chores falling to the woman of the house. I had always been the
“good cop” and suddenly my new role involved being both parents. Even now, I still didn’t always make the tough calls and it was possible, just possible, that I let Sara walk all over me at times. Since her mom’s death, my normally outgoing child had drawn inward and spent much time in her room. I think the problem was that we were still going through the grieving process in our own ways. Maybe this joint project would bring us together and let us process some of our pain. It was worth a try.

A week later, at our Saturday morning breakfast, I brought out a present, poorly wrapped in tacky red and green “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” paper from last Christmas.

“Before we get going, I have an early birthday present for you”, I said handing her the box. With a giant smile, she ripped through the paper, uncovering an orange handled twelve-inch long steel hand trowel. As her face went from smiling to doubtful, she slowly withdrew it from its handcrafted tan leather sheath. Gripping the handle with white knuckles so not to drop it, Sara inspected the sharp serrated edge, which came to a point, and the six-inch ruler clearly etched into the dull silver-colored shovel.

“What’s the heck is this?” she asked.

“It’s a soil knife. All the professional gardeners use them to dig holes and cut branches and stems. See this metal clip on the back of the sheath? That will catch onto your belt so you can always have your knife with you when you’re outside. Let me put it on you.” I clipped it onto her left side like a mom pinning a corsage onto her daughter on prom night. As Sara continued to examine her gift, I reached above the refrigerator and retrieved a matching soil knife. Attaching it to my belt, I said, “Look, we’re twins!” Sara just rolled her eyes.

“So are ready to plant your trees?” I asked.

“Really Dad? I didn’t think you were going for to let me plant them.”

“Well, you’ve spent all that time and effort growing them, plus I do love eating apples. Question is, do you know how to properly plant them?”

“Really Dad?” Sara repeated, this time using a snarky tone. “Didn’t you read any of my forwarded emails?”

“Um, not all of them.”

“I’ll go upstairs and get two of my trees. Meet you in the front yard?”

“Front yard? What’s wrong with the backyard?”

“I want everyone to see them!”

“OK, I’ll go out back and get some supplies. See you in a few minutes.”

As I loaded up our shovels and other gardening paraphernalia I thought we might need into the wheelbarrow, I wondered if I should put my foot down here. “No, it’s just two trees,” I told myself as I pushed our stuff to the front yard. I would have preferred starting in the backyard in case we failed miserably but she insisted. In Sara’s defense, the front was a clean slate. With only a few scrubby bushes, multiple clay and rock bald patches dotted with dandelions and other weeds, and no trees to speak of, we could literally start anywhere. Rounding the house’s corner, I witnessed Sara unsheathing her knife and brandishing it in the air. As I approached, she bellowed, “Arr matey! Shiver me timbers! Ye blade slices through the toughest seaweed and barnacles.”

“So you like it, Cap’n Sara?”

Throwing it downwards, and getting the blade’s tip to stick straight into the clay, she said, “Ye cutlass throws pretty good, landlubber.”

Um, that’s not exactly what I had in mind. “For heaven’s sake Sara, please don’t take it to school. They might think it’s a weapon.” There was no need getting more calls from the principal.

“Ye first tree goes here,” Sara pointed while referring to an unfolded full color plan. Then she removed some beat up yellow plastic tent stakes from a burlap bag she had brought out. Using the soil knife’s flat orange butt to pound the stakes into the ground, she marked ten spots. I winced with each strike, hoping the knife’s keen edge
wouldn’t injure my baby.

“Why are using so many stakes? Is that where each of the trees will be planted?”  Even my inexperienced eye could tell you shouldn’t plant this many trees in one area.

“No, we are building raised beds for two of my trees to live in,” she instructed. “We need to remove the soil first and replace it with compost. Start digging inside the stakes, ye lily-livered bilge rat.”

With that directive from my pirate supervisor, we first shoveled around the outside borders and worked our way in.

“Remember Dad, we need to go down at least two feet.”

“Are you sure? This is going to be a lot of work.”

“Put ye back into it, ye scallywag, and quit yer complaining,” ordered the Cap’n.

Many hours, breaks, and salty pirate talk later, we ceased the excavating to admire our work. With dirt and sweat covering our faces, arms, and clothes, we gazed at our four foot by six foot by two-ish foot deep beds. Piles of rocky clay surrounded each bed as we planned to use them as a border.

“Nice holes you have there. Who are you burying?” asked Mrs. Blayback from behind, startling us with her question.

“Oh, hi Mrs. Blayback,” I said, not remembering her first name. “We are building a raised bed so we can plant some trees.” I couldn’t remember the last time we spoke to our retired elderly next door neighbor. It’s strange that she would show up here uninvited.

“I would have thought you would be building up, not digging down.”

“We’re replacing the soil with something more nutritious,” Sara replied. “I’m planting apple trees I started myself from seed and they need all the help they can get!”

“Did she say she started apple trees from seed?” Mrs. Blayback asked me. “I didn’t think that was possible.”

“Oh, it’s not only possible, but we have a dozen trees to prove it,” Sara said. “Want to see them?”

Taking me aside, Mrs. Blayback whispered, “You know, I don’t think those trees will grow true. Meaning you won’t get the same apples you took your seeds from. Heck, you might not even get them to produce fruit at all.”

“I know next to nothing about apple trees, but Sara started them and I want to support her. I haven’t seen her this enthused about anything since her mother passed away. If she wants to be Janey Appleseed, so be it.”

Mrs. Blayback said in a louder voice so Sara could hear, “I don’t think your trees are going to work out. I’m a Master Gardener, you know. You should plant drought-tolerant natives instead.”

“And you should mind your own business,” Sara said while placing her left hand on her soil knife’s handle. “Why don’t you go back to your yard and save your dying roses?”

“I was just trying to help, little one. You should respect your elders,” Mrs. Blayback said as she walked back over to her own yard.

“Sorry about that,” I yelled at Mrs. Blayback’s back.

“Sara, you shouldn’t have been so rude,” I said.

“Dad, Mrs. Blayback doesn’t understand that these trees are my friends.”

“I know Honey. Let’s go to the store before they close. It looks like we need a whole butt load of compost.”

Returning from our errand, we unloaded the bags of compost and proceeded to fill both cavities. Today I was thankful Sara had acquired my genetics when it came to height and build. She was already five foot two inches tall, and according to her pediatrician, would be six foot tall as an adult. At that size, she was able to carry and shovel almost as much as her old man. As the day’s sunlight waned, our exhausted and dirty bodies finished piling up the last of the rich compost. The beds were now over two feet tall, looking quite robust and dark compared to the desolate yard. Wearily, we trudged into the house like mindless zombies, ate leftovers from the fridge, and went to bed without showering. Sara’s trees would have to wait until tomorrow

I awoke the following morning to Sara’s blue eyes staring at me while she sat on the bed’s side next to me as she did on every Christmas morning I could remember. She had strict orders not to wake her parents on such a special morning, but that didn’t stop her from watching us in anticipation. For her, today must be a special day, but that still didn’t override the fact that there is nothing creepier than having another human being peering at you as you slowly open your eyes. Becoming fully conscious, I noticed my every muscle was screaming out in pain, as my 40-something out-of- shape body was now feeling yesterday’s labor, but it was obvious I was not catching a break this time. After a pained yet hurried shower, breakfast and four Ibuprofen, I found myself outside, staring at the compost ready for planting.

“I brought out Fred and Gary to be planted,” Sara said.

“Who?” My morning brain was not understanding.

“My apple trees. These are my favorites.”

“So what are we doing with the bed itself? It seems real barren right now.”

Rolling her eyes, she said, “Didn’t you read my updates from last night? We’ll be planting tree friends around my trees.”

“Tree Friends?” I really need to keep up with her emails.

“Yes, I found an article called ‘Practical Planting Under Apple Trees’ which told me what to plant.”

“Hold it. You want to plant today? We don’t have any plants or seeds honey.”

“The greenhouse opens at 1 o’clock this afternoon. Didn’t you check your email? I sent you the list of what we need. And even with these new friends, I still have a lot of lawn out there. Can we plant fruits and vegetables between the trees?”

“If we dig up the lawn, where will I mow?”

“Now you’re getting the picture,” Sara said with a smug smile.

“What do you want to grow out here?”

“I’m not sure Dad. There are so many choices. Can we grow chocolate?” she asked hopefully.

“No Honey, that’s a tropical plant.”

“How about bananas?”

“No, they’re tropical also. How about the food we buy at the farmers’ market?”

“Those little orange cherry tomatoes are DE-lish! And what about grapes?

“Sure. Green beans?” I posed.

“Blech – unless you mean those canned dilly ones we bought over the winter.”

Great, now we have to learn how to can. This just keeps getting harder and harder.

“Why don’t we ask Mrs. Blayback? She seems to know a lot about gardening.”

“I’d rather not. Her pinched up prune face gives me the willies.”

“Well, I say we go over there and ask for some advice. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Sara and I walked through the bushes that divided our property from Mrs. Blayback’s and stepped into her side yard. Spotting her working in the back, we made a beeline to her immaculate freshly planted vegetable garden. Before us was a dark square plot which had been tilled in the last week or so. Mrs. Blayback was lying sideways on the ground as she placed starts into perfectly spaced pre-dug holes before pulling soil around each with gloved hands. As we approached, Mrs. Blayback stopped and tried to get up. I walked over to help her up while trying not to step on anything green.

“What t do I owe the pleasure of your company?” asked Mrs. Blayback.

“We are here to receive some advice,” I said. “Yesterday you mentioned you were a Master Gardener. We’d like to learn about growing vegetables.”

In the next half an hour, Sara and I both asked many questions. Sara pulled a notebook and pencil from her back pocket and made copious notes. Mrs. Blayback was a fount of knowledge of all things horticultural. By the end, Sara had a sheet full of the easiest and best vegetables to grow.

“After choosing which vegetables you want to grow, the next step is to pick a good spot to grow them in,” said Mrs. Blayback. “Let’s go over to your backyard and see where you have the most sunlight.”

“I want to grow them in the front yard where everyone can see them,” said Sara.

“Your front yard? Little one, I don’t recommend planting a garden there. Vegetable gardens are for the backyard. Everyone knows that.”

“I don’t care what everyone else does. My garden needs to be near Fred and Gary.”

“Who are Fred and Gary?” asked Mrs. Blayback.

“Those are some of the apple trees we were discussing yesterday,” I said.

“It’s just not proper to have garden plants where people can see them.”

“It looks like we are doing it anyway,” I said. “We don’t really do normal very well.”

“Well, if you aren’t going to listen to me, then I need to get back to my chores. Good luck with your garden.”

“Thanks for all the help. We’ll talk to you later.” I said as we slipped back into our yard. Funny, but I don’t think we spoke to her the rest of the summer.

On the Thursday night after receiving our letter, we apprehensively sat in the beige bland City Council’s chambers. In front of the room was a long table where the city officials sat facing the sparse audience. I wore a basic gray threadbare suit-and- tie from my corporate days. It was a size or two on the small size, and I had trouble closing the jacket, especially since it was missing a button. Sara wore a newly purchased second-hand dress, something I imagined young people wearing at church. It took us an hour and a half to find just the right one for this occasion. Lucky for us, Carol, a kind fellow shopper helped us out. She flirted with me the whole time, but I’m still not ready to start dating. Honestly, my hands are quite full with Sara, don’t you think?

“Do you think we’ll win tonight?” asked Sara.

“Of course Sweetie. How could they say ‘no’ to such an adorable little girl? Just remember to bat those eyes.” I hated teaching her such deception, but this was war. They were going to break my little girl’s heart and I wasn’t going to let it happen. The meeting started with the usual boring discussions of budgets, motions, and
plans. A local gardening club presented their request to use a city owned plot to grow vegetables for the city’s homeless shelter. The petition was denied as the property was already spoken for as a much-needed parking lot. After 45 minutes, the agenda finally
came around to us.

“Council has a request to overturn a front yard citation,” stated the Chair, an older man with distinguished greying hair and a stuffy demeanor.

“Yes, that would be us,” I said standing up. “Where do I get sworn in?”

“Please sit down sir. This is an informal hearing, not a court case.”

Another board member said, “According to the complaint, your front yard is overgrown and hasn’t been mowed all summer. This is in violation of our ‘Land Development Code’ which states the owner must maintain a proper ground cover on their property.”

“Actually, that’s on purpose. My daughter and I are using our yard to grow food for ourselves. There is actually little grass to mow, but trust me, the ground is covered.”

“Also, according to this report, you are growing several plants on the noxious weed list, including Garlic Mustard, Dame’s Rocket, and Crown Vetch. We can’t have that here inside city limits,” the board member continued.

“So if we remove the offending plants, we will be in compliance?” All those years of wasting my time watching fictional court cases on TV were now becoming valuable.

“Quite frankly sir, from what this report says, you will need to remove everything that’s not on the approved plant list. That can be obtained our web site.”

Out of turn, Sara asked, “Why do we need anyone’s permission to use our own yard?” The judge was not going to like that.

“Because we are a land of laws, young lady,” the Chair answered. “Without laws, there would be chaos. I’m sorry, but this is way it has to be. We have to consider property values and the general welfare of all our citizens. If this council makes an exception for you, we’d have to make it for others.”

Sara started bawling as the Chair continued, “On the bright side, you can grow what you want in your backyard where no one will be offended, as long as it’s out of sight from the sidewalk.”

Hugging her tightly, I whispered into her ear, “Don’t worry. We’ll replant Fred and Gary in the back for their safety.” As I released her, I locked eyes with Mrs. Blayback, who had been smugly sitting in the rear of the chamber. She was only a little over four feet tall and somewhat frail looking, but tonight she seemed puffed up and confident. Well, that explained that. Maybe I should have a word with her after all of this, but really, what can be done? I could get lawyers involved but that sounded expensive and would be way too late for this year’s crop.

“Please have your front yard in compliance by a week from Friday, or we will charge you to do ourselves.” finished the Chair as I contemplated our next move.

The following morning, as I was working from home, I heard a commotion emanating from the front yard. Yelling, yes, I definitely heard yelling. And a lawn mower. And Sara’s voice. Louder than I had ever heard it since her she outgrew her infant crying fits. “Better check this out,” I thought as I ran through the front door.

“I don’t care what you think! You have no right to be here!” Sara screamed. Like the protester blocking tanks in Tienanmen Square, Sara was defiantly standing a few feet in front of Mrs. Blayback’s immaculate green and yellow John Deere riding lawn mower. Behind Sara was Fred, her tiny tree still not tall enough to withstand the mower’s whirring blades. Mrs. Blayback had cut a swath through our garden straight to the apple tree’s bed.

“The city says it goes, so I’m here to help. You should thank me. This mess needs cleaned up!” yelled Mrs. Blayback.

Rushing to step in behind, I pushed Sara to one side, replacing her with my bigger presence.

“You need to leave our yard right now before I call the cops,” I yelled over the mower’s roaring engine.

“Call them. I’ll just come back later when you’re not here. There’s nothing you can do to stop me,” said Mrs. Blayback.

“Wanna bet?” Sara said as she launched herself from the side, knocking the woman to the ground and falling upon a row of green beans. Jumping on top of Mrs. Blayback, Sara wildly punched her victim, landing a few glancing blows upon Mrs. Blayback’s arms that were protecting her face. After an initial stunned reaction (who
was this beast set upon my neighbor?), I grabbed my young attacker and wrestled her off.

“You people are crazy!” Mrs. Blayback said.

“You want to see crazy?” Sara screamed while pulling her soil knife out of its sheath. With one quick move, she slashed across the tractor’s left rear tire with the sharp serrated edge, flattening the tire instantly. She then stood over the wounded and bewildered lady with knife raised and said, “Get out of my yard NOW! And never even look this way again, you bitch!”

After I helped a dazed Mrs. Blayback up off the ground, she turned and limped to flee this angry scene. Yelling after her I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure your tractor gets back to you.”

The following day, Sara and I were back out in the yard to correct a fatal flaw in our design. I had always heard fences make bad neighbors, but it was obvious even to me that we needed some privacy from our neighbor. City regulations said we couldn’t fence in the front yard, but we could start where the front of our house began. So I decided to fence the full length of the property line we shared with Mrs. Blayback first and then the public facing side next.

“I wish this fence could be twelve feet tall with barbed wire on the top,” Sara said.

“The city only allows for six feet in height. We are civilized people, after all.”

“Make sure the bottom touches the ground. We don’t want ANYONE squeezing under,” Sara said between hammering sessions.

Bringing up another board in place, I caught the image of Mrs. Blayback peeking over to see what we were doing. Placing her left hand on her soil knife’s handle, Sara stopped what she was doing, and with two fingers of her right hand, slowly pointed to
her eyes and then towards Mrs. Blayback twice. The neighbor slowly retreated and pretended to be tending to a rosebush.

“Honey, I don’t think anyone will be bothering us anytime soon,” I said while placing another nail in its place before striking the next blow.

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