Are Gardeners Born or Made?
WE have one friend, living a few avenues away, who classifies himself, with scrupulous insistence, as "an enemy of the earth." He means that he is not a gardener and is not likely to become one. He has better things to do on a Sunday afternoon - and that's probably the only time he might even contemplate gardening.Skip to next paragraph
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Only dire necessity impinges on our friend's disinterest, and about once every 12 months he makes sudden and radical war with clippers and spade. It's heroic stuff: giant clumps of perennial this-and-that get heaved into new corners. Other accumulations are generally hacked and chopped. This is a pioneer's pruning and taming of rarely explored territory. Afterward, he is proud to show what he has done. And it is an achievement of sorts - a temporary victory of brute force over habitual reluctance. Then h e happily settles back into habitual reluctance, no fonder of gardens than he ever was.
We have immediate neighbors who are not gardeners either, but they are not gardeners in a different way. Their form of not-gardening is of the "friend of the Earth" variety: In other words, if the earth that happens to be around their house walls chooses to sport a flurry of dandelions, a hoard of nettles, or a groundswell of groundsel - things that a regular gardener would look upon with withering disfavor - then that's OK by them. It's all nature, after all.
The effect is not precisely what some garden professionals are now advocating as the "wild look" - that look has to be carefully contrived. This lovingly neglected garden doesn't just look wild, it is wild. Thoroughly so. And although the wifely half of this friendly couple can occasionally be discovered prying out of the driveway five or six of the dandelions that she feels have finally gone a little over the top in their profligate ambition to carpet the universe, on the whole she likes things the way they are, and is much happier studying ancient Icelandic literature in her library.
These neighbors have a neighbor who is a gardening enthusiast. They are perfectly forgiving about his freakish behavior - it's a free world, each to his tastes, is their attitude. If their neighbor is peculiar enough to weed and mow, manure and plant, then who are they to judge? Not that they actually notice. They walk past the results of all this garden buff-ery without a glance.
This gardening neighbor of theirs - whom I happen to know quite well - tells me he doesn't mind. After all he is not gardening for them. On the other hand, he does find it hard to understand how anyone can be indifferent to something from which he derives such compelling, gigantic joy.
Are gardeners born? He can't remember when he didn't love plants and their cooperative gathering in communities called gardens. But he does remember some of the occasions that intensified this affection.
One of the earliest, at his home in the north of England, was the triangular summer garden his mother planted for him at the foot of the narrow path descending steeply from the steps down from the back yard. She had contrived to gather into this one small, overlooked corner every kind of annual flower that might appeal to a child. "I only remember it," he says now, "at the absolute peak of its flowering - a miniature wonder-world packed to its gills with flowers."
"I remember," he goes on, "small paths weaving through all these flowers, and I suppose because I was shorter then than I have been since, I was very close to those flowers. I have never forgotten the intensity of that garden - mine without the slightest effort on my part, a gift ... a gift for life because the idea, or ideal, of a garden has inspired me in one way or another ever since. ... [A] child is sometimes closer to flowers than an adult, and in other ways than inches. It's as if he sees them in a kind of dawn - their brightness for the very first time, poignantly, thirstily, their endless array of different shapes, colors, their buds and roots, and their amazingly varied ways of relating flowers to stems and leaves.
"Even today I can still see many of the plants in that garden, some with wonderful names like 'love-lies-bleeding' (with dangling red lamb's tails) and 'love-in-the-mist'; snapdragons (you can make them open and shut their mouths if you press them just right); marigolds with their pungent smell and seeds like fingernail parings; sweet williams, hollyhocks, and delphiniums. There were orange and yellow nasturtiums, of course, with their juicy round leaves that smell like sour mustard when you break them, and their large seeds - perfect children's seeds.