It’s not that difficult to spot us: we’re the ones wandering around the freezing cold nursery in the dead of winter, red noses running, cheeks burning from the wind, gazing with undisguised longing at the empty shelves. The real gardeners among us (of whom I am not one; Cf. “I Quit Tomatoes”) are happily selecting kale, chard, beets, and seeds. I picture them breakfasting on French breakfast radishes, baguettes, and fleur de sel.
Meanwhile, I’m scouting out the latest advances in hummingbird feeders, like the lovely hook-cum-ant trap I bought this year.
At bulk pick-up time, we are hopefully checking out every curbside stack of flowerpots, hoping for a great find in the right size. We are known for asking perfect strangers for cuttings, seeds, pups, and bulbs, happy to offer some of ours in exchange. We ask each other the names of plants, and display our modesty about our own gardens rather like parents of kindergarteners who confess that they can hardly get their little ones to stop speaking French all the time.
You wouldn’t know it unless you know one of us, but lots of gardening people have houses that are only really clean during the winter, when there is nothing better to do. The rest of the year, we wipe surfaces in a rush and bribe our spouses to do the weekly vacuuming after we’ve finished traipsing dirt through the house for the tenth time this weekend. If it’s important to you that the homes you visit boast clean refrigerators and only nominal dust bunny traffic, visit us in January.
As growing season approaches, garden people can often be picked out of crowds by their rumpled clothes, early tan lines and dirty fingernails. We cannot always be counted on to remember to wear gloves when throwing mulch around. We can often be seen walking around our neighborhoods, eager to know what everybody else is doing with their yard. If our river rocks and hardwood mulch have been dropped in our driveways by large trucks, we will probably be seen walking with at least a slight limp, one hand occasionally offering a rub to the aching place in the lower back.
As far as our wardrobes are concerned, when it comes to a choice between hitting the mall and doing a quick comparison between what’s new at The Emerald Garden and what’s new at Shoal Creek Nursery, there’s no contest. I joke about having direct deposit at the Natural Gardener, and buy most of my clothes on sale at REI. I never have been very disciplined about changing out of my good clothes before I play in the yard, so all my clothes need to be washable. Sometimes by the hose.
Some gardening people walk around their neighborhoods with sharply competitive attitudes, critical of neglected and water-gobbling landscapes, weighing the potential satisfaction of reporting offenders to the neighborhood association. These same gardeners are at the same time deeply envious of what a certain few people have managed to accomplish. Look at that huge redbud, blooming already! I’d give anything for a giant agave with a flower stalk like that, awash with honeybees! Can you believe that Pride of Barbados got through the winter? Mine always die back to nothing! Humph.
Although there may be gardeners out there who lay claim to having green thumbs, I have never met one. My sister-in-law up in Connecticut, who has a magnificent landscape, a pond, a greenhouse, an acre of tomatoes, and hundreds of day lilies she started from seeds, would never say she has a green thumb. She says she likes to work in the yard.
I think it’s because the idea of a green thumb suggests great luck, the gardeners’ equivalent of a Midas touch. The implication is that anything you plant can’t possibly do anything but thrive beyond all normal expectations. You have a philodendron? It covers one wall of your living room. A lemon tree? You thrill your neighbors all summer with baskets of ripe fruit, and give away jars of homemade marmalade at Christmas.
Gardeners know it doesn’t happen like that. Sweat, dirt, water, money, aching backs, water, money, broken nails, heartbreak, failed hopes, water, mortifying losses, unexpected deaths, dirt, money, sweat, rusted implements, money…
That’s how it happens.