The ultimate definition of an optimist may very well be a person who looks out at a mass of brown, smushed foliage; twisted, broken, defoliated branches; and lumpy, gray-green lawn and says,
“Yup. Looks like it’s going to be a good gardening season.” Who are these people? They’ve certainly never seen my yard in March.
Well, here we are again. Funny how Jan. 1st rolls around about this time every year. It’s almost a pattern. Depending on circumstances, I’m guessing that some of you are…
A) looking out at the remnants of the Great Blizzard of ‘08 and laughing about all of the earnest prognostications about global warming. B) looking out, horrified, at the blooming roses in your yard while writing donation checks to Al Gore. C) looking out, closing your eyes and imagining the lawn expanded into a nine-hole putting course (male fantasy, most likely). D) looking out, closing your eyes and imagining your husband, still sitting on his riding lawn mower, buried under your new bed of exotic cutting flowers (female fantasy, I’d guess). E) looking out, closing your eyes and imagining a kind of shaking-the-Etch-A-Sketch approach. That is to say, wiping out the whole thing and starting from scratch.
It’s been that kind of year. I’ve been breaking all sorts of personal rules. I don’t know what came over me when I put actual information into this column (see July/August). I think I was suffering from a summer fever.
And here I go again. I never repeat column ideas, but I’m reprising my holiday sing-along. Maybe it was the letter from the woman who said she read my songs and couldn’t stop crying. Or perhaps it was the letter from my editor who said, “If you don’t have a column to us by tomorrow, we’re putting a monkey at a keyboard and seeing what he produces.”
I believe it was the Shakespearean actor and gardener Ralph Kean (second cousin of the even more Shakespearean Edmund Kean) who remarked, “Ya know, dying is easy. Composting is weird.” As far as I have been able to determine, Ralph didn’t work much on stage. Or in the garden, for that matter.
If the truth be known, my compost pile has never really been up to snuff. Oh, the stuff (not snuff) I throw into it breaks down well enough. Over time. Over a long, long, long, long time. Are you all familiar with how quickly a decade passes? It’s my fault, I’m sure. Whatever happens in the garden-mine or others-is always my fault and, given that mind-set, blaming myself for having slacker microbes is not all that unreasonable. Perhaps I’m not thinking enough positive compost-y thoughts.
I had one of those horticultural dreams the other night. You know what I’m talking about. The ones where you’re being attacked by giant loppers and you’re running through a field that’s been sprayed with a sticking agent so that it’s like running on fly paper and it’s slowing you down and the loppers are gaining on you and as you look back over your shoulder you can see that the loppers have a face that you can’t quite recognize but they are shouting “Snip! Snip!” as they get closer and closer and it dawns on you that the voice sounds remarkably like your fifth grade teach Sister Mary Malathion and now you’re really sorry that you threw that spit wad or maybe you’re actually sorry because you used a very toxic chemical in your garden many years ago when you didn’t really understand anything about gardening and you wish you could take it back but it’s too late or maybe it’s something else altogether but it doesn’t really matter because Sister Mary Loppers is right behind you and…
“And good English has went.”
That’s how it was. At least that’s how I remember it. I am, unfortunately, old enough to have a memory of when Alfred Hitchcock made his film “The Birds.” (Hint: don’t watch it before visiting the aviary.) The tag line for the advertising campaign was “The birds is coming!” However, I was pretty young (really) and I remember the Mad Magazine parody as well or better than the actual movie. And in the Mad cartoon, there was a billboard that countered the advertising pitch with the phrase, “And good English has went.” It was just a visual throw-away line, but I thought it was about the funniest thing I had ever read.
Gardeners are patient people, generally. Think about it. In a world in which the cable news cycle changes every 13 minutes or so, a gardener will wait for six months or longer for a seed to germinate. Gardeners put in perennials and shrubs knowing that they will reach their full potential about the same time as their kids do. They think nothing of planting a tree with the expectation that in, oh, 20 years or so, it will provide some shade. If we still live here. So why, when the calendar changes to March, do these stolid, unhurried souls suddenly get all wide-eyed and jittery? Why do these wise observers of nature’s slow pageant start acting like a bunch of all-sugared-up kids on Christmas Eve?
Behold the power of spring. Ever seen a dog try to go through a storm door to get to a mailman? Ever watched a cat that’s spotted a bird on a picnic table? Ever observed a man surfing on the television who comes across a football game? They all have one thing in common, the look in their eyes that says, “Must. Have. Now.”
January (and February and December…oh, and add November to that list…and you might as well throw in March, just to complete the set) is the cruelest month. My readers don’t get to garden and I don’t get to create answers to gardening questions from whole cloth and lead people into horticultural cul-de-sacs, which gives me endless pleasure during the growing season.
If it weren’t for the holiday season, we probably would have legislated the month of December out of existence long ago. It’s not exactly a month that makes gardeners salivate–unless you’re a poinsettia freak, which is even more cause for worry.
So while you’re counting days until you can begin killing plants again (indoor varieties notwithstanding), I’ve come up with a few songs you can sing around the artificial fire in your pre-fab greenhouse. I’ve appropriated the music from some holiday songs for two reasons: 1) you already know the melodies, and 2) I don’t have to pay royalties.
“And I’m Hort Holler.” “Well, Hort, we’re about to enter the home stretch. Any thoughts?” “Any thoughts? Hoo-boy, Bud! A bunch of petunias. Look at ‘em!” “Petunias?” “You betcha, Bud. Never seen a bigger bunch of petunias in my life!”
“Uh, actually, Hort, I think you mean pansies.” “Pansies, petunias, whatever. I never seen a bigger bunch.” “You could be right about that, Hort. And they’ve certainly entertained this huge crowd, orange letters spelling out Viola wittrockiana in a sea of purple.” “I don’t know. That ‘W’ looks a little droopy.” “Well, Hort, it’s pretty toasty in that hot sun, especially for pansies.” “Get them pansies off the field! Get ‘em hydrated!”
I’m often asked, “How do you do it, Mike … year after year?” That’s the wrong question. The right question is “Why do you do it,
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