How does our garden grow? Better ask Shmulik!  

How does our garden grow? Better ask Shmulik!  

Letter from Israel

The Leichmans’ tile patio is fringed with bushes, flowers, and shrubs.
The Leichmans’ tile patio is fringed with bushes, flowers, and shrubs.

Visitors always compliment us on our gorgeous garden. As if we had something to do with its lush beauty. Um, no — except for the money we pay Shmulik every month for tending his creation.

Honestly, it’s not “our” garden. It’s Shmulik’s garden, although he objects when I say that, because as a traditional Israeli, with a full appreciation for the miracle of the blooming desert, he gives all the credit to God — and that is fine by me.

However you look at it, Steve and I do not deserve any kudos. We have four brown thumbs between us. Want proof? Several people gave us pots of mint as housewarming gifts when we moved into our spanking-new duplex-plus-yard in August 2008. We were warned that mint quickly can grow out of control. That was not a problem for us. Each and every mint plant was dead as a doornail within a week or two.

Our new house’s backyard was 100 square meters of dirt. We had a patio installed that was large enough for a good-sized sukkah and for our grandchildren-to-be to ride around on their little trikes and have a catch.

And then we got stuck. What next?

We wanted some greenery to offset the stark brown beauty of the Judean hills just beyond our back fence. A lawn would take too much water and too much labor. We considered, and rejected, artificial turf, as well as someone’s suggestion that we tile over the entire expanse. Admittedly that would have saved us a bundle on maintenance, but it wasn’t the aesthetic we were seeking.

So when the shmitta (sabbatical) year ended after Rosh Hashanah and we were permitted to start planting, we asked around and got a recommendation to call Shmulik. We never saw a need to get a second opinion.

That October, he strode into the brown dusty wilderness beyond our patio door, took out a sketchpad, asked a few questions — very few — and sketched out his vision.

A sitting area designed by Shmulik is set off by white pebbles.
A sitting area designed by Shmulik is set off by white pebbles.

There would be all sorts of shrubbery, such as sage and aloe, roses and birds of paradise, bougainvillea and bushes I am ashamed to admit I can’t name. There would be decorative pots of flowers to be replenished as needed. There would be a sitting area carpeted with white pebbles for a lawn swing. There would be six fruit trees and a grapevine. There would be a green groundcover that needed no mowing, and “toof,” a brown groundcover of porous volcanic rock fragments.

It all sounded fabulous, until he told us how much this would cost.

“How about we do it in stages?” I suggested, turning slightly green. “You could leave the trees for next year.”

Shmulik looked at me wide-eyed, as if I had insulted his mother. This is a look I have come to know well.

“Giveret Leichman” — Mrs. Leichman — he intoned in a calm but commanding voice, “this is not possible.” And he proceeded to explain, in slow and easy Hebrew for his clueless client, that the garden design was an organic whole. I grasped his point in a flash: just as Leonardo da Vinci could not have left a corner of the Mona Lisa unfinished, Shmulik could not leave a corner of his landscaping masterpiece unplanted.

From that moment on, my wise husband turned over all responsibility for Shmulik and his garden to me.

And because I am no match for an artiste like Shmulik, we soon had trees bearing pears, pomegranates, pecans, peaches, nectarines, and kumquats. The fruit, flowers, and shrubs thrive on a steady diet of computer-controlled drip irrigation adjusted seasonally and easy to turn off on the rare occasion that it rains here in Ma’aleh Adumim. Due to the variety and the climate, something is always blooming, and the riotous colors are breathtaking.

I love to sit on the canopied swing on Shabbat afternoons, neighbors’ cats snuggled on either side of me, drinking in the sight of our mini utopia.

Shmulik used to depend on me to phone him for maintenance appointments, but I could not be trusted to call often enough, so he began WhatsApping me to announce what day and time he’ll be arriving. Requesting no more than a glass of water, he proceeds to dig into the sweaty labor of trimming, weeding, pruning, and planting.

When he’s done, he calls upstairs to my office “Giveret Leichman!” so I can come and admire his handiwork. We spend a few minutes chatting about life and sharing family photos before he hauls his tools into the house, out our front door, and into the elevator.

He frequently scolds me about something or other: I didn’t pick the nectarines soon enough, I harvested the grape clusters too soon, I should have cut some roses to put in a vase before they died on the vine. I smile and promise to get it right the next time. He holds up his palms toward me and says sincerely, “No, no! Do whatever you want! You’re the boss!”

But I’m not. And it’s a darn good thing, too.

Abigail Klein Leichman lived in Teaneck until she made aliyah. She occasionally reflects on her new life through her “Letters from Israel.”

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