How does your garden grow?

Gardening is simply a question of timing. If you've been collecting a whole shelf of works on the Compleat Garden Touch, and wonder when the fruit of their advice will appear you can take the whole lot to the used-book store. Trade 'em for paperback westerns and heed the advice of one whose hands are in the dirt and whose scraps are in the compost heap.

Take my tulips, for example. Well, they weren't exactly my tulips. They belonged to Mary, the person who lived in this apartment before I did. But there's the point. She sowed; I reaped. She also plowed and watered and fertilized and defended the bulbs from the moles. Then she moved out. And just in time.

As a gesture of her exquisite timing, I took a bouquet of the tulips to her at her new apartment. I found her turning ground for her new garden. The mud-streaked smile was genuine if not altogether generous. "That was a nice garden. All sorts of perennials are going to be coming up all summer. All you'll have to do is weed."

That was the least I could do, after all her work. Or so I thought. The problem is that one person's weed is another person's delight. How was I to know that gangly stalk was peppermint? I supposed I should have guessed when, from the smell of things, I wondered if the rabbits had taken to chewing gum. Weeding is itself a matter of timing. Sooner or later some of those little green leafy things will have flowers; some will not. And some will look exactly like the furry fists that shove their way up through sidewalk cracks. Those in the last category are weeds; it's nothing to their credit that they sport lovely yellow flowers.

As the summer has drawn on, I have discovered that May was not the only one making this garden grow. My bird feeder hung over the garden all winter. Since the birds were not as fastidious as one would like, I now have a fine corp of mixed wild grasses and sunflowers. The latter are most welcome. The former have begun to organize the remaining garden weeds into a people's revolt. Overnight the word has spread that the best place to grow is over there in among the parsley, where you can't be removed without endangering the food crops.

About those food crops -- Mary's garden grew on me. I'd step out each morning, already late to work, but I'd stop to pluck up some intruding dandelion or to shake a bug off the wild sweet peas. I'd come home and putter in among the sunflowers. Once it had been good enough stalk asparagus gone wild in an abandoned garden. Now I found it harder and harder to pass up the seed packets in the supermarket. I wanted my own plants.

The first day out there in the hot sun with the mosquitoes was terrific. Working in the dirt and leaves, getting mud under the old fingernails, relocating night crawlers with only the slightest flinch, I saw visions of cut flowers and fresh vegetables. Each day I would check the lumps and puddles for signs of life. Fortunately the seed packets had little pictures of the early shoots. Unfortunately all early shoots looked alike to me. "This is it," I consoled myself. "this is real gardening."

But something was missing. At the office the real gardeners never talked much about their early shoots; they talked about their compost heaps. Compost heaps are the thinking gardener's fertilizer. At lunch the gardening elite would gather around their own table -- in the same way that the sports fans and the political analysts had their own tables. The gardeners would debate what and how to layer the compost heap, above-versus below-ground composting, chemical additives versus organic additives. If I wanted to join the order of the gardener, I had to have my own compost heap.

I dug the pit that evening. I wasn't sure my neighbors could appreciate the advantages of an above-ground compost. Fortunately, housekeeping had taken second place to gardening, so that I had plenty of garbage to contribute to the pit. And my latest purge of the weed patch produced the necessary grass clippings. I piled on some dirt and put a wooden lid over the whole pit so that none of the local pets would scavenge my compost heap for a midnight snack.

The next day at the office I could hardly wait for lunch. I pulled up my chair at the gardening circle lunch table. With a casual comment about the right proportion of orange peels to grass clippings, I launched into my maiden speech. They actually stopped talking for a moment and looked my way. I'd swear the woman from the computer center -- the one with the eternal grass stains on her knuckles -- moved her chair a little closer to mine.

I didn't want to appear presumptuous, so I decided to end my comments with a request for help. There is nothing the elite like more than helping. "By the way," I asked, delicately twirling my very own fresh parsley, "when can I start using the compost I put in yesterday? In a week or so?"

"Actually," Green Knuckles smiled benevolently, "I think you may have made a generous contribution to the next person who gardens at your place. You see, with your compost in a pit, the earliest you can use it will be at least sometime a year or so from now."

I'm sure my parsley visibly drooped. "No problem," I muttered. "After all, we gardeners are one generous bunch." Mary could have told me that.

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