Gardening lifts up the author, then lets him down
August 25, 1983
My contribution to the dubious genre of the gardening memoir. I wrote a few gardening how-to pieces for Illinois Times, eager as I was to show off my new expertise—indeed, eager to show that I had any expertise of any kind. I will not reproduce them here.
In our collection of family snapshots there is a photograph of me taken when I was four years old. It shows me, irresistibly cute in bib overalls, playing in my grandparents' backyard in California, busily digging up dirt and putting it into a coffee can. This glimpse of me in my formative years made it clear that I was destined to become either a gardener or a syndicated gossip columnist.
Well, Robin Adams Sloane isn't dead yet, and fate made me wait another thirty years before I had dirt of my own to play in. I have been a gardener since I moved into my first house last year. (I use "gardener" here in its very loosest sense, rather the way Jim Thompson uses the title "governor.") We garden on a modest scale (vegetables, herbs, flowers, and a few strawberries). While we enjoy eating what doesn't die, the only way we could sustain ourselves on what I pull out of the ground would be if I struck oil while double-digging an herb bed. L. fixed a sauce the other night whose ingredients (except for a single bay leaf) came wholly from our own yard. I couldn't actually taste the sweat that went into its production, of course, but it lent a certain savor to it just the same.
I must apologize for that last line. I am trying to rein the lyricism which afflicts the home gardener at the thought of siring an eggplant. Among the more tedious obligations of friendship for the non-gardener is having to listen to gardening friends rattle on about the wilt that got his beans or how her peas suffered from damping out. Non-gardeners doubtless yearn to reply, "Damn you!" when dinner table conversation shifts to mulches. One can hardly blame them—although there is a lot to be said for crushed walnut hulls in that regard.
I regard gardening the way William Cobbett, the English writer, regarded greenhouses two centuries ago. They exist, he once wrote, "for the rational amusement and occupation of persons who would otherwise be employed in things irrational." Given my incompetence, I would be foolish to expect more tangible rewards. Earlier this summer, for example, it became apparent that my back lawn was dying, victim of a common fungus which has much the same effect on grass plants that public schools have on children of color; it cuts them off from their roots and turns them white. The death of my lawn was taken by some of my friends as a commentary on my excessively suburban ambitions. (I once talked loosely of playing croquet on it.) But I came to see it as a blessing. Lawns are stupid if their function is purely ornamental. (Thalassa Cruso, the author of several gardening how-to books, once revealed her secret of an attractive lawn: Look at it only from a distance.)
Vegetable and flower beds separated by bark paths are just as handsome and more useful too, and that is what I intend to replace my lawn with. Also, I can be reasonably certain that not all my new vegetables and flowers will die at once. I have had to perform so many post mortems in my back yard that I felt like Quincy, M.E. My cucumbers died of wilt, and my green beans weren't. My zucchini came to remind of Lebanon, since there were so many warring factions—beetles, squash bugs, borers, mites—exploiting it.
Indeed, while I've never much agreed that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, I have come to notice that pepper plants usually are. The novice gardener is suddenly alive to gardens everywhere. Not only have I seen gardens where I never noticed them before, but I have noticed the absence of gardens in places I'd otherwise have expected to see them. The neighborhoods of Springfield's north side, which are the province of this city's older, ethnic, working-class families, are graced with hundreds of what the English call kitchen gardens. Some of these occupy a couple of thousand square feet or more; I have nearly driven off a railroad overpass on Dirksen Parkway more than once while craning to check out the progress of gardens in the yards below.
Kitchen gardens are as rare in Springfield's more affluent west side neighborhoods as an honest tax return. Many northsiders are pensioners who grow food to save money; westsiders don't need to. Many northsiders grew up on farms, in this country and abroad, and thus recall what real food tastes like; westsiders typically value convenience over taste. Westsiders have bigger yards, but northsiders, unencumbered by ballet lessons and charity soirees, have more time.
Aesthetics play a role too. Cobbett wrote, "The progress of the crops is by no means unentertaining to any rational creature." It was for this reason that he considered it the "most miserable taste to seek to poke away the kitchen garden, in order to get it out of sight." But simple utility runs counter to our prejudices in landscape design. Hugh Johnson, an English garden writer of contemporary vintage, notes, "The American trend is to have the garden"—he means yard—"professionally 'fixed' in such a way that it will stay fixed—or at least only require a weekly call from the contractor to hose it down." The pleasures Cobbett alludes to, of course, are anything but fixed; that is their charm.
One of the pleasanter aspects of gardening, by the way, is the opportunity it affords for reading. I have concluded that winters were invented to give gardeners time to polish their manuscripts, since apparently every gardener worth his trowel has written about it. Like similar genre, garden writing often strikes the uninitiated as too precious or too arcane. (It is a fault I find increasingly in political columnists, for instance.)
What garden writing lacks in universality it usually makes up in eccentricity. Cobbett, who was absolutely bonkers on the subject of that "fibrous and strawey root" known as the potato, is an example. So—in their very different ways—are Ruth Stout and Katherine S. White.
The English produce most of the great garden writers, of course, being a literate people who are also devoted gardeners. L., who is as resolute a digger in bookstore remainder bins as she is in her flower beds, found an English coffee table book (perhaps I should say tea table) called Principles of Gardening by the aforementioned Hugh Johnson (Simon & Schuster, 1979). The fact that it had been remaindered confirms that it found no audience among American gardeners, perhaps because there wasn't enough about roses in it. It is profusely illustrated and handsomely produced, and unlike most American books of its type it is written and not merely captioned.
Johnson is a man who knows his mind about things horticultural and does not shrink from speaking it. He feels something close to contempt for American gardens, and, one supposes, American gardeners. He scoffs at our lack of concern for privacy in the garden, and dismisses the typical suburban-style yard design as "inert and characterless." He doesn't even like the names we attach to our common plants; the styrax, he sneers, is "known in America with characteristic bathos as snowbell."
I've no doubt that if Mr. Johnson were to tour my own meager plots he would confirm all these prejudices and discover a couple of new ones. No matter. I am alive to the dangers in taking too much pride in one's garden. One thing Johnson and I agree on: "It is . . . the gardener's pleasure to be constantly adjusting, correcting, editing . . . ."
Actually it's nature that does the editing at my place, not me. Maybe that's why writers tend so often to become gardeners. We are used to our cherished conceits being excised as irrelevant to a larger scheme. ●