A Treatise on Gardening Types

By Robin Chotzinoff, June 23, 2008

Gardeners may well constitute one big family, but if so, we are like those large, messy broods in which various members are not speaking, cousins are holding hands (or worse), and the grand old patriarch was just revealed to be an embezzler. Some seem to be speaking an alien language (it may be Latin). There are tribes and allegiances, trends and constants. Sometimes it's hard to believe we're all related.

Most intimidating of the clan are the geniuses. These are the gardening prodigies who evolve in three stages. First, they go out into a yard, maybe their own, knowing nothing. Then, curious about something -- a black spot on a rose leaf -- they consult a reference book, then several others, and memorize everything. Finally, they come up with amazing, unheard-of solutions to problems that have existed since time began. Last June, a genius I know told me to put 2 cups of dry dog food in the bottom of the hole whenever I planted a rose. Only he knows why, but the rose outdid itself.

Geniuses' natural extensions are the empire builders, who figure that if one rose looks good, two thousand will look better. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are my favorite American prototypes. Under their guidance, mile-long stone walls and exotic plantations took root. It must have been deeply satisfying to look out over it all from a house that resembled a Greek temple, though surely not as pleasant to view it from the stooped position of hundreds of slaves. If I'd been born in a different century to a different social class, I like to think I would have made a magnificent empire builder, although I would have needed a staff of geniuses to make up for my lack of inspiration.

Instead of building empires, I took the lazy route and became a happy bumbler, which means I plant here and there, this and that, by fits and starts, and am always, without fail, incredibly pleased with myself. Illustration: a golden-hued shrub that I had planted last March seemed to have died from lack of moisture (directly attributable to my not watering), but this morning it produced three red leaves. Yahoo, it lived, I thought, and wandered off, again forgetting to water.

My mother, by contrast, was a grumbling bumbler. She, too, knew very little about horticulture, but even so her Los Angeles yard sometimes exploded with magnificent citrus trees and tropical flowers. Society garlic grew in hedges! But did she wallow in this success? "Just look at these horrible tulips," she'd say. "They're stunted. I can't even imagine why."

A specializer would know why, or die trying. Specializers I have known evolved from regular gardeners who grew some vegetables, trees, and flowers, to people with arcane passions of great force and endurance. Ground cherries, for instance. I've also met pumpkin, chard, rhubarb, dahlia, hollyhock, and dandelion specialists. They seem very fulfilled.

Jungle dwellers take it one step further. To the concept of overboard specialization, they add a twist: how about growing something almost impossible for their climate and soil? In Colorado, that means rubber plants with bougainvillea twining up their trunks and lurid blooms in the foreground. It can be done, but at what cost I don't even like to think. Conversely, I've seen a Caribbean lettuce plot surrounded by 4-foot prison wire to keep the flying cockroaches out. Even when the wire worked, the lettuce still bolted. Still, a small percentage of the lettuce was edible, which made it not just a salad but an agricultural legend.

Many of the people you see in the nursery aisles are not so sure that "effort" and "garden" belong together for more than one weekend out of every year. These are four-packers, humble homeowners who pick up a pack of zinnias or marigolds or petunias, plant it, and call it good.

And it is good, actually, all of it. Four growing things are better than one, and one trumps none. More importantly in the gardening fraternity or in anyone's family, forgiveness beats out snobbery, temper, and even informed choice.

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

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