Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nature Bats Last

"But make no mistake: the weeds will win; nature bats last."
writer, naturalist, lepidopterist
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love to garden and those who don't. 

Let's be clear: I'm no garden ho'. I wish I loved gardening, I really do. I truly appreciate a beautiful garden, and I love the idea of gardening. But actual gardening — not so much. My perennials perennially perish, my vegetable garden is fruitless, and my annuals barely take root.

My mom had a magnificent garden at her last house in Michigan, complete with herbs, flowering trees, bordering perennials, and even a koi pond (thanks to my husband) teeming with colorful fish and water plants. She assured me that gardening when you have young children is too much to ask of anyone, but that once my children were grown and gone, I, too, would love to garden. That was right before she and my dad moved to Florida — primarily to get away from any form of garden or lawn care.

I've been doing a lot of walking in my neighborhood this spring and summer (trying to convince myself that exercise, like gardening, is good for me — but that's another post). What passes for spring in Chicago came late this year, but by now the gardens have been painted into the landscape. While bulbs and lilacs may have faded, roses are gushing and peonies are panting to break loose from their confining rings.

Even the annuals are filling in nicely — in other people's gardens, thank you very much. My daughter and I planted a flat and a half of begonia's around the base of our "small" tree, and they still look puny and separated, not the lush pink area rug of blossoms I had envisioned.

Last summer, I ventured one cherry tomato plant in a pot. It cost me $2.48 and yielded about nine edible fruits, which would probably have run me about $2.48 at Dominick's, so it was basically a wash. This year, we tried two tomato plants (one has since passed away); herbs, including basil, rosemary and lemon balm (all doing quite nicely in their containers); and, at my daughter's insistence, a bell pepper plant. I have no idea how to grow peppers. Do I need to pinch? Prune? Deadhead? Oh, well, we bought the $1.98 version, so we won't be out that much when it bites the dust.

I kind of like the "container garden" thing. They're easy to plant, require little maintenance and look lovely on the porch steps. It almost appears as if a real gardener lives in our house — until you see my neighbor's garden, two doors north. 

Can you say obsessive-compulsive? The guy (and his gardener) are always tinkering (or is it puttering when you are in the garden?) — planting something new here, moving this plant over there. Sure it's beautiful, but who has that kind of time and energy? Self-employed people with no kids, who have enough money to hire a gardener, that's who.

I would garden if you could do it only three times a year: 
  1. that first perfect day in March, when you are so happy to be outside after the long winter that you kill yourself doing yard work and can't move for the next week; 
  2. one planting session sometime after Mother's day, when you are finally sure the last frost has passed, and you feel supremely satisfied about getting everything in the ground that you were tempted into buying at the local garden center;
  3. a single 1-to-2-hour weeding session in mid-to-late July, after you have sufficiently recovered from the May planting session, but while it still seems worthwhile to spend time on plants that are just going to die in the fall anyway.
I know to many of you this kind of thinking verges on sacrilege. I know I'm supposed to care about the inextricable relationship between humans and plants. I know this because I read Michael Pollan's fabulous treatise, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World. I know I'm supposed to want to grow and eat my own vegetables, because Barbara Kingsolver made me feel guilty about it in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

But here's the thing — I'm allergic to insect bites. I've tried to find passion in the rich, brown soil of the garden, but all I've found is dirt under my fingernails. I've searched for satisfaction in a good day's worth of gardening, but all I have discovered are sore knees and screeching lower back pain.

Isn't it enough that I can appreciate the beauty and bounty that a well-tended garden yields — preferably through my picture window, or in a vase on my coffee table, or overflowing from the rich, brown depths of my wooden salad bowl? 

A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors.
Charles Baudelaire, French Poet (1821-1867)

What's your gardening story — death or glory? Click here to tell us about it. And if you find your vegetable garden overfloweth, we will gratefully accept any and all surpluses.

See my latest Chicago Moms Blog post on the recent spate of celebrity deaths by clicking here

Photos: Tulips in Chicago and Pot Garden in Florida; 2kop.


Peter Rozovsky said...

I am no gardener, but I have just posted about a hilarious crime novel that looks at horticulture in ways I'm sure it had never been looked at before.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Carolyn Brandt Broughton said...

I applaud you for even trying! It used to be that putting even a house plant under my charge was like sentencing it to 'death row' ('dead poinsettia walking!") I've become a better plant mommy lately, but still joke that I've got a brown thumb!

Thank God there are people out there who have the time and inclination to get down on their hands and knees to become one with the earth on a regular basis. It strikes me that you are successfully tending a garden of a different sort -- planting words together one by one to yield beautiful, nourishing blog posts!

Unknown said...

I became a very tentative gardener this year. Not that into the dirt either, really. But the beauty! Gotta go, going to the garden center again (really)!

Linda G

Anonymous said...

(Pirate is stalking me from the bed while I write this with a very mean look on his face - oh wait, he's been distracted by the polka dots.)

Okay, so, just because we kind of suck at remembering to water does not mean our little tomato plant should perish. And the basil looks good. So, two out of, what, seven, isn't bad?

And someone up there applauded us for trying! We should get an "e" for effort.

Kenn said...

Gardening is like writing.....Plant an idea....weed it out....cultivate more....correct the off shoots....weed more... water with more words and then watch it bloom into the most beautiful work of art. I believe you are a great gardener. Look around you. Kenn b.

Peter Rozovsky said...

The Downey book revolves includes a serious flower competition and the theft of rare rose hybrid. The accent is on comedy, romance and political shenanigans, but the book contains plenty of convincing botanical detail.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Amy Sue Nathan said...

What a great post, Susan.

I'm a gardener in my mind. I plant my pots, I water, I dead-head and I spray weeds. I don't like to get dirty. I like to look at a garden, and some weeds, y'know, they're kinda pretty.

My trick is to plant my standing pots with cheap overflowing hanging baskets that are already thriving. No growing, just tending. Maybe like adopting an adult.