As the Garden Turns

By Robin Chotzinoff

I once saw a play in which Katharine Hepburn played a crusty old lady set in her ways. Her foil was a young hippie girl. In the end, they forged an understanding, but that only happens in plays, which is why I didn't plant a clump of larkspur next to my six pots of true-red geraniums this year. The geraniums are Katharine Hepburn; the larkspur is the hippie.

Not that red and blue don't go together nicely in the garden. What's incompatible are the personalities. So I found a dignified, contained setting for the geraniums, and I allowed the larkspur to shack up with a shaggy-leaved, Fabio-on-acid mullein that showed up a few months ago. They have started their own little Woodstock, smack up against the deck where we humans drink martinis at sunset. I try to look the other way.

I'm anthropomorphizing my vegetation -- attributing human qualities to it. Apparently, there's something morally askew about that, because we're supposed to admire nature in its pure state, which would presumably be even purer if we humans had never shown up in the first place.

But not assigning human qualities to plants would make for a dull time in the garden, and I wouldn't be out there if it were dull. In fact, when I first became interested in growing things, it wasn't the miracle of plant reproduction that hooked me, but the soap opera of it all. I began with six tomato plants, some zinnias, a potted fuchsia, and lots of corn.

My garden journal started like this: Where corn should be is bare dirt.

Followed by: Stan, the alarmist, says to look for hornworms on the tomatoes. I see nothing. Followed by: Oh, my God. I see them. They are sucking the soul out of 'Tiny Tim'.

'Tiny Tim' was a cherry tomato who seemed to have a hormone disorder. He would spurt out tomatoes, but no foliage, and he never grew taller than about 8 inches. Next to him was virile, muscle-bound Mr. Beefy (a.k.a. 'Beefmaster'), who produced 2-pound slicers with gaudy stripes.

A few weeks later, I wrote: What, exactly, is the relationship between Mr. Beefy and 'Tiny Tim'? And: I swear the fuchsia is as neurotic as an old lady in a Tennessee Williams play. One little blast of heat, and she just gives up her blossoms, daahlin'. On it went. I continued to garden for the same reason I read People magazine: hot gossip.

Other gardeners may tell you they don't do it, but they most certainly do. A friend's mother is feuding with lamb's ears, a woolly weed that seduces her roses, then slowly suffocates them. Her crusade has taken on moral as well as horticultural overtones, and I sympathize. There is indeed something impertinent about a plant so short in stature and yet so unabashedly shaggy. Nevertheless, it's popular and resilient -- not unlike Mick Jagger on his most recent tour, and what mother would want him nosing around?

On a less complicated note, I recall the spring my cousin Lisa announced, ″You know what? To hell with impatiens. Who needs them?″ See what they got for being so impatient?

Over the years, the ratio of friendly plants to annoying ones has grown more favorable in my garden. These days, I am often greeted in the afternoons by drifts of bluish bachelor's buttons who look exactly like Paul Newman in a flirtatious mood. The 'Joseph's Coat' rose, when it's blooming in its hot and sultry way, reminds me of a street vendor I met in the Caribbean who, for no reason, looked me in the eye, laughed, and said, ″I love you.″

And of course, there's the usual cast of tomato characters. The most current crop is like an extended family of sisters, friendly and easy to be with but in need of constant grooming and reassurance. The larkspur -- well, what can you do with her? She needs her space, man.

As for Miss Hepburn, she is properly self-sufficient and spartan, blooming with great self-control and impeccable breeding. She's never looked better.

Robin Chotzinoff is the author of People With Dirty Hands (Harcourt Brace, 1997).

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

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