Portrait of a Gardener: Anticipation


Some few days before Thanksgiving this past year, in my customarily dilatory fashion, I managed to work up the initiative requisite to clearing out my garden. By mid-November, the crisp autumn breezes had sharpened into the unremittingly blustery winds that typify an early northeastern winter, and my jalapeño plants had been steadily drooping with a pathetic resignation to the season’s onset. Their dark leaves had long since taken on an unsightly tinge of pallid malnutrition, and I suppose (at the very least) some semblance of guilt should have motivated me to take action. But the impending chill was – at the time – something to be suppressed, and regardless, winterizing my garden consists of little more than plucking some wilted stems and discreetly emptying their pots behind a hedge, thus providing an ostensibly justifiable excuse for ignoring whatever sense of urgency that should have impelled me to act otherwise.

And so, after closing up shop, so to speak, and now lacking anything upon which to green my thumb for the next several weeks, what basic garden tools I’ve accumulated over the last few years I have finally (but temporarily, of course) consigned to a vacant corner of the attic made accessible to me by my exceedingly accommodative landlord. My trowel and some pruning shears peak out of a sheet of folded tarpaulin, a tomato cage – compromised with a slight warp – leans against a window, a pair of work gloves lie draped over a can of paint, a tottering stack of flowerpots – each bucket smudged with the discolored residue of last spring’s potting soil – houses several packets of castoff vegetable seeds. Since that obligatory shutdown in late November – long after the storied first frost – these items have sat, tucked into this little recess, harboring amidst themselves the modest ambitions that every gardener impatiently entertains over the long, lifeless haul of winter.

Urban sprawl has permitted me over the last two years to sustain no more than a casual upkeep of a few relatively commonplace plants, and, as such, I do not want to paint some idyllic still life: my collection of garden tools is presently jumbled amidst some stray camping equipment and my wife’s growing assortment of Christmas decorations. But there is a peculiar romanticism inherent to any space reserved for the cultivation of one’s pastimes. A space that is distinctly personal – a space that is marked with the idiosyncrasies of its owner and, consequently, frequent occupant – grants by its very nature a small sense of fulfillment, the appeal lying in its allowance of a practical conduit for expression. Writers acknowledge the importance of such a space; artists retire to their studios. And such should be the case for the gardener. No, this little corner isn’t by any means the ideal workroom, but until I possess the means to clutter a greenhouse or a woodshed, it will suffice. Because aside from the obvious practicality of it, such a space offers through these slow months of hibernation an occasional but all-important reminder. The concentration of those effects representative of my indulgences hosts, essentially, anticipation: spring will soon be here. Nature is in motion. And I will then be afforded the necessary elements to toss a few more seeds into a few more pots and preoccupy myself with the simple pleasure of furnishing their intermittent requirements.

Recently, my sister gave to me for my birthday a collection of writings culled from Henry Mitchell’s Washington Post column “Earthman”, and, as time permits, I have been skimming through, acquiring a smattering of insight on subjects as diverse as the unwarranted reputation of caterpillars and the unsung hardiness of certain species of flowers previously unfamiliar to me. Though he passed away almost twenty years ago, Mitchell’s aptitude for engaging the reader has enjoyed as much celebration as has his seemingly comprehensive knowledge of floriculture. But I have found most appealing the suffusive tone of his life’s work, as it has served to articulate that which has drawn me to seeding and supplying my own garden: Mitchell comes across as likeably matter-of-fact in his discourses on the art of tending the undomesticable earth. It is evident that he was wholly dedicated to his craft, and yet his sensitivity to the reality that one cannot hope for a perfectible version of his or her garden is irresistible.

By most accounts, conditions suitable for replanting my peppers are just around the corner. I also hope to attempt to grow some tomatoes this year, and, after experiencing moderate success with his blueberry bush last summer, a friend has convinced me to attempt to do likewise. And while I am not at present capable of concerning myself much with the logistics of a very diverse or even impressive garden, I begin to feel excitement around this time every year, and by the end of the summer, I hope to enjoy a fairly basic yield of produce. Between now and then, gardening will continue to be what it has always been: an end in itself, something imperfect and perfectly delightful.

Photo credits: Mikael Lavogiez



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