Impatience in the Garden

By Robin Chotzinoff

"I know it's against the rules, but you know, Mitochka, you're only alive when you're breaking rules."

The quote comes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, a book about the unbearable rigors of life in a post-Stalinist exile community. But being a typically self-involved home gardener, I read it recently and found profound relevance to gardening.

I am, in fact, only alive when breaking rules, and because I garden for happiness rather than for self-sufficiency, breaking rules is my guiding principle this spring. The main rule I plan to break is the one against speeding. Gardeners are always told to be patient. I'm willing to gamble on purple asparagus, which I know will take three years to produce anything but fernlike foliage. But that's it. I hear, for instance, that a certain peony may take decades to establish a "blooming habit," but once it happens, it's worth it. If I die waiting, how will I know?

This year, I'm still seeking those magic words, "Days to harvest: 16." Failing that, I'll buy enormous seedlings, cram them into warm, composted earth, cover them with Wall O' Waters -- and down blankets, if necessary -- and make an offering to Indy, the Goddess of Speed. But will that keep the twin annoyances of Patience and Modesty from my yard? Probably not.

You can barely read the skimpiest gardening section of a newspaper these days without seeing ludicrous, time-consuming rituals that the experts swear by. The obvious culprit here is Lawn Care, a process so full of numbered steps that following them guarantees you will never have time for croquet, bocce, bug gazing, barefoot frolicking, or any of the things you want a lawn for in the first place. Fine. I don't have one.

Unfortunately, though, I'm easily seduced by Lawn Care's evil acolytes, the checkout-stand magazines. Shouldn't I know better than to be drawn in by "Easy Garden Structures in a Weekend" and "Instant Color for Perennial Borders"? Can't I see it coming -- the tiny-print hardware-store list that calls for "5/8-inch galvanized angle bracket" and "eggshell base tone glazing compound"? Or a giant jungle amaryllis bulb "readily" available from Van Flueyyck Brothers of Papua, New Guinea? Or carefree lily seeds that produce a riot of blossom -- except that first you have to nick them, soak them, and plant them by the light of a gibbous moon?

I know better. The Garden Structure will end up looking not like collectible folk art, but a Rustic Twig Wad. The easy amaryllis bulb will fly halfway around the world only to rot contentedly in my carefully prepared soil bed. Forget it.

This year, I'll hold to the tried-and-true: big, fast vegetables bolting their hearts out in an elk-proof compound. No borders, no theme flower plots, no climbing anything on a trellis. (The trellis already looks bereft as it waits for the clematis to twine up it.)

Instead, I advocate the rampant cutting garden in four easy steps. 1. Put on a weight belt, and dig up three times more plot than you need. 2. Go to a cut-rate nursery and spend three times as much money as you earn on plants that require full sun and poor soil. Plant them at a frantic pace.

3. Over the top, scatter a Parmesan-cheese-like layer of cosmos, zinnia, marigold, sweet pea, and bachelor's button seeds. 4. Drum your fingers for two months, then go out with big clippers and shear off huge armloads of flowers whenever you feel like it.

This procedure works well until your local paper runs the story about "How to Cut Flowers and Put Them in a Vase." And go into business! And charge $300 for a centerpiece made of "plant material"! So pay attention, because you, too, could -- Oh, you could not, and you know it.

Nevertheless, stand by in shock as the pleasure of picking flowers becomes a nightmare of nitpickitude: i. e., mash woody stems and sprinkle them with bonemeal (or was it baking soda?) before plunging them into a basin filled with tepid spring water and a half-teaspoon of pulverized aspirin, or a half-liter of flat 7-Up, whichever comes first.

No! Renounce it! Sacred Speed Goddess Indy, protect me. I don't have time.

People With Dirty Hands (Harcourt Brace, 1997).

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