Gardening When You Really Don’t Wanna

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The most dreaded thing I’ve ever had to face was to be dragged along while my mom took my sisters shopping. Any time this happened, it was beyond awful. A purgatory of boredom and sadness that could last anywhere from endless to eternal.

Picture it this way: I’m an otherwise happy, well-adjusted 5-8 year old boy, but I’m being held hostage in a cavern of clothes racks at some store for the 6th or 7th hour and my arm is being held straight up above my head. All the blood it ever contained has drained from it hours ago, my wrist is gripped white-knuckled tight by an unbelievably strong, terrifyingly frustrated, and appallingly unsympathetic mother, and she is yanking my arm right and left to emphasize each and every syllable–my whole body violently following each yank–from some variation of a sentence that starts with “Mister, you had…” and ends with …”something to cry about.”

Any expedition to go buy clothes was like this. Totally unendurable. But the worst of the worst death marches were treks for Easter outfits. Worse than that? Shoes. Easter outfits? I want to cry right now just thinking about it. What absolute zero is to physics about describes the absolute misery caused by Easter shopping. But, somehow, shopping for shoes was even worse.

There is no telling the amount of pain that went into making this photograph possible.

If I remember right, the main issue with shoes was that one of my sisters had skinny little feet and, for her, there were always several choices of adorably cute shoes. Amazing how much time could leave the universe while deciding exactly which pair, but at the end of the day she went home with nice shoes. On the other hand, my other sister had wide feet and needed “corrective” shoes. This was the double whammy of terrible luck for her and me. The best she ever found were shoes that nuns wouldn’t even wear. Me? A fate that consigned me to dangle from one arm in store after store after store as my mother led us all–wild in sorrow–in an ever widening migration of despair, shoe store to shoe store in what we all knew was a vain pursuit of a cute pair of wide “corrective” shoes.

The sound of this misery–moaning, whining, complaining, crying, and my mother’s hissing, cursing attempts to make it stop–steadily built to a crescendo of unhappiness that–thinking about it–NASA should have recorded and then perpetually beamed into space so as to deter hostile aliens from having any interest in our planet.

Anyway, this is how I spent somewhere around a quarter of my childhood.

And this same level of misery about describes a quarter of my gardening chores. That’s right. Gardening ain’t all wine and roses. You see, I’m not in it for the motions. I don’t garden because I like to push a mower around the yard in a certain pattern. I never have a hankering to go turn a compost heap, or haul brush to the woods, or spread 15-20 yards of mulch. I don’t like trying to figure out why my well-pump isn’t working, and it’s been a very long time since I found anything compelling about digging a hole.

Those activities are merely a means to an end, and the end is a beautiful garden with all the benefits therein: a backyard oasis, a refuge for wildlife, and a safe place to enjoy the sweetest kind of peace on Earth. Bonus credits for a contented wife, adulation from strangers during garden tours, and for a green vegetative kind of privacy that allows open, carefree peeing in the middle of the backyard at any time on any given day during the growing season.

Indeed. All this, not pulling weeds, is why I garden.

And yet even as we speak, here in football season, I have sacks and sacks of bulbs to plant before the ground freezes. It’s been a hard year, I’m kind of gardened out, and no matter how much I try to focus any ESP powers I’ve got, those bulbs just are not going to plant themselves. This, all because I heard Brent Heath speak back in May, got all excited, and placed a big order.

So I will do what I’ve always done: make excuses, put the task off, and try not to think about it too much. And I will do these things for week after week. In certain times when I’m feeling the urgency more greatly, I’ll quietly wish for an injury or a breakdown that will serve as an adequate excuse for failing to get them planted. Eventually however, the day will inevitably come when there’s no room for even one more second of procrastination.

And there I’ll be, on my knees, cold, slimy soil chilling me to my bones, a bitter wind rasping at my face, trying not to smell the dog crap that got on my jeans because it was camouflaged in the leaves, and suffering strange, phantom jerking motions in my right arm. Inside, on TV, The Ohio State Buckeyes are defeating Michigan again. There’s guacamole on the counter. Beer in the fridge. But I’m not inside. I’m outside, and cursing the hell out of that smooth talking Brent Heath.

Another time it’ll be summer. 100 degrees out. And I’ll be cutting down a skanky old crabapple and every single twisty, pokey, gnarly, and ugly branch will have made up its mind to fight me every step of the way. Whatever I want, they’ll want the opposite. They’ll gouge at my eyes. They’ll gash my skin. Nasty, itchy stuff will fall down the back of my shirt. I’ll be sweating, bleeding, and pissed off. There will be no easy angle to position for any single cut. Brush will tangle underfoot. Each of a hundred logs will not stack without a brute force battle of wills, and not one piece of brush will go into the truck and stay there until I’ve discovered–by endless repetition only–the mystical combination of cuss words that will stop the Universe from blocking my simple desires.

A crabapple displaying full on winter interest in the middle of summer.

Or, it’s mid spring in Ohio and like a complete freakin’ idiot I again jumped the gun and planted out a bunch of tender stuff. I get home from work after dark, it’s 35F and raining, and they’re calling for a hard frost. And, like a damned soul in a Renaissance painting, I’ll inconsolably drag myself outside, and for the next fours hours I will–in fits and starts–construct the world’s twelfth largest shanty town in the backyard from whatever little bits of scrap wood, chunks of rock and rubble, some string, tape, old sheets, blankets, and filthy leftover plastic sheeting I can find in a panicked effort to save a bunch of annuals, tropicals, vegetables, and some expensive fern that Tony Avent said was hardy to Zone 7b, (at least) from a cold, lonely, continental, Z6a, untimely death.

Fun times.

Here’s what follows that: You drag yourself back inside, take a forever long hot shower, down a few shots, and, sitting there as surly as sin, you think really dark and dirty thoughts. Other people aren’t doing this shit. Other people live in condos. They have their thermostats set at “Giant-Ass Carbon Footprint.” So warm they’ve been forced to strip down to teddies and speedos. They’ve over-eaten a fabulous dinner and drank a bottle of wine they don’t even know enough to appreciate. Yep, you were having a cold, wet piece of plastic that smelled mind-blowingly bad whipping back and forth across your face as you, both hands engaged, tried to tack it down over a row of tomato plants, and those condo people were living a bacchanalian existence. And you loathe them.

And, yet, you garden on.

Honestly, I’m mystified. Where does the fortitude come from that gets gardeners outside to suffer through odious tasks under miserable circumstances simply because they need to be done? I don’t know. Really don’t. But I’ve done it. Over and over and over again. And my gardening friends have all done it too. I don’t know, reminds me of something that parents used to toss off at you with a smirk: “Hey, it builds character.” Maybe gardeners have that.

But, I will say this. Winter is long and it dies hard. It rears its ugly head again and again before it’s finally defeated, and there ain’t no better tonic for that than the almost tearful joy a garden full of blooming bulbs brings. They fill the heart, God bless them, combating cold and gray with color and fragrance.

And then comes summer. Hot and humid. Sometimes you just want to run from the house to the car, from the car to the office, and then back again. A/C to A/C. An inside, artificial existence devoid of anything that stokes our human nature. But under a shade tree you’ve tended for years, you can enjoy a tall drink and the hordes of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds that come to visit that Lantana you saved. And then can pick some of your own tomatoes right from the vine and bring them in for the BLTs you’ll have for supper.

Some other time you’ll find yourself looking at the empty space where a scabby, rusty crabapple once lived, and you will take huge and vicious satisfaction in knowing that it was living its hideous existence and then you sawed it down. It was ugly and now it’s not. It’s gone. And you’re totally responsible. And, yet, you live as a free man. You feel no guilt. Nope. You feel joy. It poked your eyes. It raked your skin. It hurt your back. But all that’s over now. You’ve got a drink, and you’re smiling almost fiendishly as you enjoy the lovely aromas of ribs roasting in its smoldering wood.

You just try not to think too much about the stump you chose not to grub out. Nor that day sometime in the future when you’ll roll in a 400-pound, balled and burlaped, plant du jour that some speaker at some conference got you all excited about. Yeah. Sure enough. That day will come, and it will be woeful. But that’s just how it is. That’s how it’s meant to be. To have this, you gotta do that. And you’d have it no other way.

48 COMMENTS

  1. I’m glad I wasn’t eating while reading your post because I did a spit-take every other paragraph. Very fun reading and I can relate, especially to the dreaded “slaying of the hostas” this time of year.

  2. Excellent piece!!! I especially relate to all the times you mention savoring the delights of a great meal and adult beverage after working in the garden. Amen to that. I also relate to the torture of accompanying mom on shopping trips, but for me the worst was when she would take us to the fabric store to pick out patterns. I recall trips to Baskin Robbins being offered as compensation, though. 🙂

  3. A great post — I, too, dreaded childhood shopping trips with my sisters and mother, and similarly tried my mother’s patience.
    Gardening is a great argument for marrying well. I don’t mean marrying into money. I mean finding a spouse like my wife, who among her many virtues likes to weed and water the vegetable garden. Not only that, she is really firm about reining me in when I have fallen prey to the wiles of garden product marketers. She finds me useful because I can operate the two-wheeled BCS tractor we use to do the heavy work. Truly a marriage made in heaven. Plus she doesn’t want me along when she shops for clothes.

    • Thanks Thomas. I, too, am fortunate in having married an easy-going woman. She has become a decent gardener herself, usually fulfills the task of dragging brush to the woods, and is almost as excited as I am about visiting other gardens. She’s not as excited by my temper and cussing, but then I always cook us a nice dinner every Friday night (and some other days too). This, I have found, gives me slack for a lot of indiscretions.

  4. Ok, so now I know there was a reason for why I was dragged along kicking and screaming to every Little League Baseball and Pop Warner Football game my 2 older brothers participated in (no, youngsters, girls weren’t allowed to play back then): to build character! and make me a gardener!

  5. Oh, I can so relate, as I think about the Iris that were supposed to be divided last month (and the three previous July/Augusts), ditto for the Oriental Poppies in a space I’m planning to let revert to grass, and the weeds, and the mulch sitting in the driveway. Yeah, I can relate.

    • Actually, mine too. This blog could have easily been about “Writing a Blog When You Really Don’t Wanna.” It fought me every step of the way, and at one point I absolutely hated it. When I finally got it posted, I had no idea if I liked it or if anyone else would.

  6. I absolutely love this essay. Yep, I was that Mother. My poor son was dragged along at the shopping centers in his youth. Ha… He was also enlisted to work in the garden when it was not his choice. However he grew up to be a gardener too. Still doesn’t like to shop. ha…
    All you mentioned about gardening I could relate to. This all made me smile. Thank you.

  7. I can TOTALLY relate to this after this past summer. Made me laugh and cuss along with you. Sorry Scott, I was the one with wide feet needing corrective shoes. Gardeners are certainly a bunch with lots of character(s)! 🙂

  8. Brent is the devil. But such a sweet and lovely devil that you cannot hate him. We’ve all signed our souls over at one time or another. 🙂 Good luck and I sure hope you have a PowerPlanter for your drill.

    • Yes, that Brent is a sly and sweet devil. He has talked a million people into buying his bulbs, but how much more beautiful is our world because of his passion? And, yes, I’ve got a 2-cycle gas-powered, some HP Echo drill with a heavy 2″ bit. Mixed blessing. It will dig holes quickly and efficiently. It will also twist your arm right off your body if the bit hits a rock or a root!

  9. I’m confused. I thought Brent & Becky generally sent their bulbs in your zone after Thanksgiving. Isn’t college football generally done (except for the bowls) by Thanksgiving?

    • Took all kinds of artistic license with this part. The order has been placed but hasn’t arrived although some from other sources have. The part about the cold day and dog crap, however, will be all too real.

  10. Am I the anomaly? I actually like getting my hands dirty. I find yanking up weeds satisfying (and a good way to vent frustration about something else), and the exertion of pushing the mower, or raking the leaves, or digging planting holes, is far more enjoyable than running in place on a treadmill, for me. Even turning the compost- makes me happy to unearth the black goodness at the bottom of the pile. Honestly, I can’t think of one gardening chore I loathe. Well, maybe disinfecting pots at the end of season.

    • Yep. You’re an anomaly. No, actually, there are plenty of times when standard issue garden chores are just fine, especially when you’re younger. But this was about those chores and those times when that isn’t the case. And a premise much more fertile for the occasional joke.

  11. I don’t remember allowing you into my head, but somehow you sucked out all of my thoughts on the gardening duties that I don’t necessarily enjoy. Most of it I love, but right about now I’m over it after this crappy year of too much heat, too much rain, and then too little rain. Yet there is still much clean up to be done, leaves to rake, and a garden to put down for the winter when the cole crops are done. To top it all off, I ended up with a pinched nerve for 3 months after a fight with a lawn mower that wouldn’t start. I love my yard and garden, but this summer can suck it… I’m ready to hibernate and hope for a better crop next year! Great read!

  12. Brilliant. The conundrum every passionate but honest gardener faces. I just remind myself that fir every hour spent on hard slog in the garden we get endless hours of pleasure down the track.
    Cheers from Oz

  13. Really funny! Oh my gosh, those condo people! I garden for a living so I do all that work for others to enjoy, but it’s different when you are getting paid for sure and I use native plants so the wildlife part makes me feel good too. Thoughhhhhhhhh the crab apple- I would have left it for wildlife- all the bird buffet it could have become. Maybe hang a couple of bird feeders off it, then you can also let it decay naturally. Less work and better for the environment. Just a matter of getting over the “winter appeal in summer” hahaha. Thanks for the laughs.

    • Oh, the crabapple had suffered long enough! Total decline for years. In the back forty, I would probably have left it, but it was totally prominent in the landscape. Actually, a big piece of it temporarily remains as it is supporting some very impressive morning glories and cardinal vine, but once those die back (hand across my throat). But be assured, some really good wildlife plants will go in its place.

  14. This is such a fun & profound way of putting life in perspective!
    I am a tomboy/Daddy’s girl
    And I hated clothes shopping( any shopping)
    And can relate too all of this.
    Kudos to this site you have a new avid gal in the dirt reader.
    And thank you also for the flood of my dearest moments w/ both parents whom are no longer alive to share such bittersweet moments with.
    Signed;
    DebraLynne

  15. Even though you seem to feel this was written “off the cuff”, I have to say it’s hands down one of the best articles I’ve read on this forum. Funny and oh-so-true, and makes those of us who’ve “been there feel a little less nutty!

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