Bare-knuckle gardening

That's not like you, Red," Monty remarked. "Wearing gloves."

"Lime," explained Red.

His soil had been white-powdered like a freshly bathed baby. An annual lime-sprinkling (but not on your potato patch) is one of those rituals good plotters observe and I persistently forget.

So Red is anti-glove. I hadn't noticed. But I am not surprised.

Gloves are one of those attitudinal litmus tests by which gardeners measure one another's mettle. I myself sit on the fence, glovewise.

My shed does display evidence of glove use (and abuse). Gloves of thin, soft material dangle along a string across one corner like washing. Heavier-duty waterproof gloves are scattered elsewhere. My evolved glove system is soft-glove inners, heavy-duty glove outers. I replace the inners when they sink to an unacceptable perspiration high.

But I only wear gloves at all because otherwise the abrasive griminess of my hands and my nails in mourning prove distracting to patrons of well-bred restaurants.

The Visiting Artist lent me an out-of-print 1940 book called "How to Grow Food," by Doreen Wallace. Its amusing little narrative, meant to initiate "townspeople" into the mysteries of vegeculture, presents a "Mrs. B," who has been evacuated from London into the country to escape "the fury of the Hun."

Mrs. B rushes in, hungry for horticulture, and does everything wrong. Buys overweight tools. Purchases ungainly garments. Digs moving forward and so tramples her work. Invests in unfortunate "gloves with all the edges on the outside."

Enter her gardening angel.

This helpful character, described as a weather-beaten person of indeterminate gender, turns out to be a die-hard country woman marvelously willing to dispense pragmatic advice and brisk criticism.

Mrs. B's gloves are almost the first casualty.

"I see you wear gloves," the woman pronounces in tones identical, I fancy, to Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple, "if you can call them gloves. I'm sorry about that. No real gardener wears gloves.... I occasionally wear them, in arctic weather, but my hands feel like feet in them."

I know what she means, though it may be noted that plotter Joe Gallagher - indisputably "a real gardener" - uses gloves, and so does Penelope Hobhouse. Trouble is, gloves do get between one and serious work. Once I am in the thick of a plot session, I whip them off unconsciously and delve with bare digits.

Fingers are, after all, a gardener's primary tool. The prongs of rakes and cultivators and forks are doltish and insensitive substitutes at best. As Bridget Boland observed in her delightful little (also out of print) book "Gardener's Magic and Other Old Wives' Lore," "I love to get my hands in the earth on a warm day and feel how live it is - as live as any flower or animal, it almost pulses."

I AM INTERESTED to see that "The Tool Book," by William Bryant Logan (Workman Publishing, 1997), devotes a section to gloves. He advocates different gloves for different jobs. Sensible. But his remarks are prefaced by a disprovable claim that in "the Middle Ages gardeners didn't wear gloves." They did, and I can point to a 15th-century picture of weeding gloves as evidence. The Visiting Artist says that "they look like one of those sewing projects that went wrong" because each hand consists of one thumb and only two fat fingers.

The V.A. herself, in real life a renowned artist-weaver, has gardening in her blood and in her art. She wears "loose gloves that can be slipped off easily to make the transition from weeding the garden to weaving the garden."

Wearing, weeding, weaving. Sounds like Caesar. (And I bet Roman gardeners wore gloves.)

*A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

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