My mother is a gardener. The pursuit began several
years ago pursuant to a certain Michael Pollan book, when she marched into the backyard with a spade and turned over a rectangle of black Iowa soil. The first year’s crop – cabbage – left the local rabbit population in excellent health. For my mother, what began as an experiment became all-out war, and in its second year the garden was outfitted with a wire fence and a godlike plastic owl, and my mother successfully harvested more than a single serving of coleslaw.
The garden is now in its third year, my mother is a skilled horticulturalist, and I often receive news about the garden. This June, she wrote, “It's going to be a thousand degrees here today so I'm out in the garden early. Picking sweet peas and digging potatoes. Vegetarian supper tonight . . . from fifty paces off the back door stoop,” and then in August: “It's high summer in Iowa . . . Although you may not see your neighbor's backyard, you know which of us have gardens by the rows of bright red tomatoes in the kitchen window . . . My freezer is half full of vegetables . . . and very little meat. A better balance.”
I am not a gardener. But, in exploring Godine’s various gardening books and in perusing my mother’s e-mails, I’ve noticed that gardeners, contrary to what you might think, are reckless. What made Thoreau think he could tame a patch of rugged wildflowers into robust rows of beans? After battling weather, worms, and woodchucks, he muses in Walden, “What was the meaning of this Herculean effort, I knew not,” (Writing the Garden, just published in October 2011 by Godine). Some years later, Michael Pollan battled the woodchuck in his own garden, going so far as to set his enemy’s burrow ablaze.
I don’t mean to say gardeners are pyromaniacs, but rather that they are similarly afflicted with imagination, by the ambitious vision of Forsythias, Violets, Rosemary and Lupines where there is only brown and tangled nature. The English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932), who pioneered gardening for women with her thirteen gardening books, writes “There is no spot of ground, however arid, bare, or ugly, that cannot be tamed into such a state as may give an impression of beauty and delight,” (The Gardener’s Essential, published by Excellent Press).
If gardening begins with intoxication, its labor is both sobering and invaluable. Jekyll continues: “It is no use asking me or anyone else how to dig – I mean sitting indoors and asking it. Better go and watch a man digging, and then take a spade and try to do it, and go on trying ‘til it comes, and you gain the knack that is to be learnt with all tools, of doubling the power and halving the effort; and meanwhile you will be learning other things, about your own arms and legs and back . . . and you will find out that there are all sorts of ways of learning, not only from people and books, but from sheer trying,” (The Gardener’s Essential).
William Robinson, a contemporary of Gertrude Jekyll, writes: "We have no attractions in or near our gardens compared with what is within our power to create" (Writing the Garden). He means, I think, that the real value of gardening is not the harvest, but the process of building it. The true gardener is the one who butchers her backyard, plants seeds too close, fantasizes about killing rodents, and after months of backbreaking labor reaps a few lopsided, ant-speckled tomatoes, and then turns around the following year and does it all over again, this time with a better grip on her spade. In doing so, she cultivates more than a crop of healthy tomatoes.