The neighbor who helped us put down roots in a garden
As the years passed and my children grew, tomatoes and zucchini grew along with our friendship.
“Here. Use these,” my next-door neighbor said when he saw me putting in a vegetable garden. He dropped 10 large white plastic buckets over the fence that divided our yards.
“Thank you,” I said, picking one up. The bottom had been cut out, transforming the bucket into a tube. “But I’m not sure I know what to do with it.”
My husband, Mark, and I had just bought our first house in a new town. I was pregnant with our first child and was dealing with the uncertainties of impending motherhood by planting a garden. My neighbor came around the fence and introduced himself. Peter. He had a Greek accent and a kind, weathered face. Without asking, he knelt in my freshly tilled soil and began working the bucket into the ground until only a small round lip protruded. Then he dug a hole in the middle, picked up one of my tomato plants, and tamped it in.
“Now you can water directly into the bucket,” Peter said, reaching for the hose. “The water goes right to the roots. Less waste.”
“I’m not sure about these buckets,” I told Mark later that afternoon. “But I kind of felt pressured.” I pointed to Peter’s garden. It looked to be thriving, with tidy rows of buckets and healthy sprouting plants.
“You don’t have to use them,” Mark said. “It’s your garden.”
True. It was my garden, but there was more to it than that. My father, who had died 13 years earlier, taught me how to garden. He had passion and a green thumb, and every summer he transformed our Connecticut yard into a paradise of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. This was my first time gardening since he died, and in a way, I was doing it for him.
As the summer progressed, so did my gardening relationship with Peter. In June, when it was time to tie up the tomatoes, he came by with tall wooden stakes and pounded them in for me. By July, when my bulging belly made leaning over uncomfortable, he insisted on doing the weeding. He worked long hours as a taxi driver, but he always found time to stop by and check on my garden.
In early September, my son Phinny was born. He was a week old when I stood next to my tomato vines heavy with fruit and introduced him to Peter. “He’s going to be a big strong boy,” Peter said. He’d never had any children of his own, but he took Phinny in his arms with all the gentleness of a grandfather.
The next years were a gardening challenge for me. “I can’t do it this year,” I told Mark one spring when our son was 3 years old and our daughter was 9 months old. But Peter came over in May and put the buckets in the ground for me. “Come on, Phinny,” he said. “We have to help your mom.”
Two months later I harvested my first zucchini and turned it into a loaf of bread for Peter. In July, he picked his first ripe tomato and handed it to Phinny. Watching my son savor it, I remembered standing in my father’s garden on a summer day, popping warm cherry tomatoes into my mouth.
My children were teenagers the spring that Peter said he wouldn’t be putting in a garden. “Too tired.”
“You have to,” I pressed. And he did, probably for me. That would be his last garden, but for the next few years he helped me with mine, often cheerfully enlisting my children to help with the watering.
Shortly after my final harvest last fall, a neighbor came by to say Peter had died peacefully in his sleep. He hadn’t even been ill.
This past spring, as I have for the last 19 years, I put in Peter’s white buckets. I planted tomatoes and staked them, grateful for how the earth provides.