Are Gardeners Born or Made?

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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.

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.

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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.

"And then," he continues, "I remember coming home from the shops on the top deck of the bus from Bradford with an 'Amateur Gardening' Handbook on Rock Gardening, by G.K. Mooney... I read it all the way.... That was when the dreaming began. Mr. Mooney inspired in me enormous ambitions to grow 'alpine' plants - though these included things like yellow alyssum and aubretia - tumbling cushions of fresh yellow and strong purple - which probably were never near an Alp in their lives. Gentians and soldanella an d alpine pinks followed, and when we moved south to Surrey, it was gardening in among rocks that preoccupied me. And by then I was proof against all discouragement.

"The portentous father of a friend of mine, an ex-Army man who had since retirement organized important Parks Department gardens, when he heard me voice my fascination for alpine and rockery gardening, observed: 'Ha! Rock Gardening! No point in that. All those rocks are just an encouragement to weeds and slugs.' It was spoken in a manner that brooked no disagreement. But there was that in me which disagreed so up-wellingly that I went silent and had no future interest in this man or his opinions thencefo rth!

`THERE have been a remarkable number of encouragements and incentives along the way - unexpected gifts of plants, visits to other people's gardens, the imparting of skills and know-how. Among the last I set great store by what my Dad's head market-gardener (because my Dad gardened for profit as well as pleasure), Walter Ducker, showed me once. He cut short lengths off the box bush at the back of the house, expertly stripped off most of their lower leaves, cut the stems sharply at an angle just below the nodes, dipped them in 'Seradix B' (rooting powder), and inserted them in a pot full of sandy compost, watered well. It seemed months (it probably was) later when he turned the pot over, tapped it smartly against the bench, and out came a solid pot-molded sandcastle - threaded with roots. Cuttings! That little trick opened a new world of possibilities I still find just as fascinating as sowing seeds and waiting for them to germinate. "Of course, the strongest incentive of all remains how other much more expe rt horticultural wizards produce the most remarkable results, growing plants that I have never succeeded with, or plants I've never seen before. Saw some alpines grown in pots last Saturday which made your mouth water - rare, exquisite, pristine specimens of plants from obscure mountain passes lost in remote regions, flowering here in the Scottish Rock Garden Show with a willingness that might even better their success in their native habitats: At least these were untouched by weather and mountain sheep, co ddled and coaxed as they had been under glass by gardeners utterly devoured by their chosen art form! 'I could steal that plant,' remarked one shameless visitor of an unusual daphne with a supreme scent.

"And one other thing," our neighbor's neighbor chuckles, "that I especially liked: There was this old farmer in Yorkshire when I lived there in the 1970s. He had remarried late, and his wife fancied a garden. Frank was 'henpecked and I loov it,' he used to say, so of course he made his wife a quite outstanding small garden. Two lanes at right angles sided this small garden. It was quite a surprise out there when you drove by. Farmer's gardens were never like this.

"Well, one day Frank was working away in the garden, and this 'old chap' stopped and leant on the wall. After a while Frank spotted him, just as he was pulling up a docking. 'Aye, aye,' said Frank, m 'enpecked, tha knows, and I loov it.'

"The other man grinned but said nothing for a while. Frank went on digging. Then, as he was about to go, the wall-leaner said, in broadest, emphatic Yorkshire: 'Tha knows, it aren't joost thee it suits - tha knows!' And off he went.

"Well," said my neighbor's neighbor, "that tickled Frank greatly. And it's stuck with me as well. No one just gardens to suit themselves, you know. That's why I long ago removed the hedge by the road here. Flowers are free for anyone to look at. Why would I want to hide them away? I wouldn't mind a bit if I caught someone staring over my wall...."

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