Essay: To garden – or not to garden?

How to know if you'll take up the trowel in 2008.

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    One spring day: A woman works hard raking leaves from the garden near her home in Marlborough, N.H.
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All of us who have gardens will have to decide soon if we are going to continue to be gardeners in 2008.

Because, as early April arrives, spring asks about our willingness to make the effort again. I think of my gardening attitude this time of year as push-me, pull-you – a mixture of pushing me away from having another garden and pulling me toward it.

By now, the failures of last summer are starting to fade from memory (that tends to pull you toward another year of gardening).

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At the same time, there are still those late-August vows never again to take the trouble to water (push me), weed (push me), and struggle (push me) to do all the unglamorous things the gardening magazines and the senders of seed catalogs don't talk about. It would be easy in this push-me mood to let the deer, the muskrats, and the raccoons have their way.

I sometimes think, when I remember the frustration of planting hollyhocks three times in one summer and twice having the young plants eaten by deer, that I might perhaps turn to tennis, hiking, or some other less heartbreaking hobby. That's heavyweight push-me thinking.

The pessimism passes when I recall using large tin cans to protect the third hollyhock planting – and the wonder of the first tall blooms. That's what pulls you back to gardening. And yet ... there is the nagging push-me thought each spring, when the hollyhocks become vulnerable as they grow taller than the cans.

This kind of back and forth goes on for weeks. It's certainly true that in gardening – unlike, perhaps, in other areas of our lives – we will all know more in the coming year. And you cannot learn that new knowledge without doing the work and suffering some disappointments.

The trick is to focus more on the pull-you aspects of gardening than on push-me ones. In that regard, I've asked a baker's dozen of questions that can be used to clear last year off the books and make 2008 a year of promise, not pessimism.

You will know if you are going to be a gardener in the coming year if you can answer yes to six or more questions. There is no need to tell you my answers, since what I did is revealed in the questions:

1. Did you fail with a flower you love – fail utterly, miserably, devastatingly, tragically, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and with not even a glimmer of a silver lining (unless composting can be seen as a silver lining)? And have you vowed (to show the depth of your love) to try again with that flower in 2008?

2. During the dry weeks last summer, did you mulch to preserve what little moisture remained in your soil? Did you use for mulch newspapers and everything else at hand and some things that were not – things you had to go out and buy, knowing full well that some of these mulches would be ugly and/or much too expensive – but you were willing to live with the ugliness and spend the money to save your plants?

3. Are you prepared to do it again?

4. Do you save your old gardening catalogs, the ones that began arriving in December 2007, as well those from earlier years, and do you absolutely know why you have not thrown them out, even though you realize that these catalogs, physically and symbolically, lend themselves to recycling?

5. Did you help the toads or frogs in your garden survive last summer by leaving a shallow bowl of water for them or a house made from an upside-down flower pot?

6. Did you grow any annuals from seed? Did at least one type of them thrive, and were you proud of yourself when you put the dead plants on your compost pile after their season had passed? Did you think that this may be as good as gardening gets?

7. Last year, were you able to buy things at garden centers in the early spring and not be stuck with what was left in late spring? Did you buy a straggly, woebegone plant in late spring out of sympathy, a plant that needed a good home? And did it thrive?

8. Did you put your houseplants outside for the summer months and were you reluctant to bring them in? Why? Are they a pain? Or are they like children who need special attention for only half the year?

9. Did the squirrels and moles seem less troublesome than usual and the deer about the same?

10. Did you plant onions and garlic last fall, knowing that it was almost like investing in a sure thing – a "futures" transaction all your own?

11. Were you more or less overstocked with bulbs late last fall? Did you (after you had reached the "enough digging for this year" stage) put the last 40 or so bulbs into pots that you sank under a huge pile of leaves. Have you uncovered them? If not, you should, because you will now be rewarded for being lazy.

12. Did you watch a spider?

13. Did you decide to try again?

The gardener's lot

Henry Mitchell, a man who knew how to love and laugh in his garden, had a few things to say about "the gardener's lot" in his book "One Man's Garden." Here's a quote from it to hold onto:

"The life so short, the craft so long to learn. This was said about literature, but it really fits gardening better. Poetry, after all, is learned extremely early as a rule, if it is learned at all, but gardening is the province of old crocks past the age of twenty-eight.

"Why does it take so long to learn? Partly because books contain endless errors, and partly because the craft is so close to the real world.... [Y]ou can spend most of your life gardening before it finally dawns on you what you think is most worth growing. And the rest of your life (as Gertrude Jekyll once observed) puzzling out how best to grow it."

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