This is one of those odd rhetorical questions I ask myself with varying frequency – most often at the beginning and the end of growing season, when the work is most thankless and intense. Up to my armpits in dead foliage, fingers so used up I can barely work my stupid uncooperative clippers, the words charge unbidden through my evidently empty head: Why am I doing this?
The reasons why we do what we do, or why we enjoy what we do, must be as varied as our fingerprints. Tastes and preferences rise up from many sources, some of them almost inexplicable. While I would love to make things out of wood, the sound of sandpaper on any surface drives me insane. I’d also love to play a musical instrument, but learning scales requires a level of discipline I will evidently not acquire in this lifetime. It seems I’m never going to develop past playing in the dirt.
It is most honorable, I think, to garden in order to feed people; and all foods that come from the soil are wonderful to me (except eggplant, and don’t even try to change my mind about that). I know there are people who take care of other peoples’ yards for a living, and that would be an excellent enterprise too, if the people who do that hard work could only earn a living wage and access to good health care.
I suppose plenty of people work in their yards because they feel it’s what a homeowner does, keeping up their property value or keeping up with their neighbors. It’s simply a chore, like mopping, and the best part about it is when it’s done. I see them pushing their mowers up and down the yard in straight lines, faces grim. They seem to daydream of condos sailboats and all the fun they could have if they weren’t tied down to a house.
But I have the luxury of being a mere hobbyist, pursuing yard work because I prefer being out of doors and while I’m there I might as well do something.
I think I’m supposed to wax lyrical at this point, something about connection to mother earth and the cycles of life and death. Or maybe gardener versus nature, the battle of wills between human and insect, wars waged against disease, frost, mildew, hail, noxious weeds and murderous winds. Western civilization striving to tame nature. Hope and despair, death and renewal, gratuitous beauty… I think that about covers it.
It’s difficult to say just why I garden, but it doesn’t generally feel very lyrical. The habit took hold when I had my first house, so there must be something in there about influencing my immediate environment. I’d read somewhere that you should think of your yard as a series of rooms where you might sit and enjoy visually appealing surroundings. That made sense to me, and I keep doing it.
Since I’d bought a house on a street with the same name as my friend Mary’s street, it seemed only natural to bring a California sensibility to the challenge. I wanted roses like Mary had, jasmine like Mary had, lantana like Mary had.
The problem, if you could call it that, was that the house was situated under a canopy of old pecan trees. This meant extensive sunshine all winter and about ten square feet of full sun for the rest of the year. Plus, whether I liked it or not, Austin is prone to harsher winters than Los Angeles generally experiences. There would be no night-blooming jasmine on my little piece of south Austin, and I couldn’t get roses to thrive in all that shade. The concept of native plants was only beginning to appear on a distant horizon in my mind.
Little by little I figured out – with guidance from local gardening stars like John Dromgoole – what would grow in that yard. I used the ten square feet of full sun to grow the best basil I have ever grown, and threw wildflower seeds around the tiny front yard. I learned to love the rose of Sharon outside the living room windows and let the English ivy do whatever it wanted to even though you’re not supposed to (unruly, remember?).
As I was preparing, in a heartbreaking move, to leave that house, I was cleaning up the front yard when a lovely neighbor walked by. She said her little one had learned to count by counting the different kinds of flowers in my yard. I burst into tears.
Maybe I garden to make sure mathematics stays alive in the minds of small Texans.
My next yard had a fairer ratio of shade to sun. The front yard made a perfect garden once I went after the grass with a pitchfork and an attitude. Here’s where I really turned enthusiastic about gardening. Having a front garden means that the people walking by will always express their happiness and amazement about what’s happening there.
So for me, gardening is also part show biz and the sound of applause. My current neighbors are generous in their expressions of enjoyment as they walk by the sidewalk garden. (Even though in four years I have never received Yard of the Month from the stupid neighborhood association but I am not bitter, no, I garden for personal, internal fulfillment and not the meaningless accolades conveyed by a neighborhood association in which I don’t even believe and which I don’t even like because I am The Unruly Gardener and neighborhood associations are by their very nature rule-bound and ours is particularly stupid-rule bound like think of that woman who had her paint color approved by the architectural committee that time but it dried a little different than what was expected so they made her paint it all over again which is pretty dumb for a housing development that bills itself as Austin’s “First Environmentally Planned Community,” which I thought at first meant they cared about the earth, but actually it means they care about residents selecting the few acceptable earth tones for paint colors such as Desert Sand, Sahara Sand, Pale Sand, Sandbox Sand, Pacific Sand, or Antique Sand, Arizona Sand being off-limits as it is way too dark.)
But I digress.
You know all about my current home in the ‘burbs, and the various garden-like things I do around here. The sidewalk garden is my first real stretch of full sun, and even though it’s not good for you nowadays, I was raised in the sunshine. I love the sun. Fortunately I also love being outdoors, especially in warm weather. So gardening is a great excuse to be outside instead of living behind closed doors doing things like dusting furniture or writing up my summer syllabus for students who are already clamoring for it but who will in all probability never read it.
There’s also the thing about bees. Floyd has taught me so much about honeybees, and now we all know they are on the brink of becoming endangered. It seems especially important to provide as many flowers for them as we possibly can. This in itself is a magnificent excuse for buying new plants: I am doing my part to save the earth.
At our previous house I fell into the habit of feeding the bees artificially when they took over the hummingbird feeder. Before long, the bees started following me around as I went about my yard chores, buzzing emphatically when the feeder needed filling. I became accustomed to having them on my skin, and learned that gardening with a honeybee on your cheek or in your ear can make you very Zen-like in your movements. But I was only stung once, and that was when I stepped on one. So I garden for the bees.
And the hummingbirds, of course. We have four tiny combatants in the yard this year, and they are emptying the feeders every couple of days. Soon they’ll be bobbing and weaving all along the sidewalk garden, tasting salvia, standing cypress, lantana. Keeping track of their feeders is one of the routine chores of summer; maybe I garden because it gives me something to do every morning besides looking at the news and collapsing into intractable existential misery.
I also garden for the quiet of it. The inside of my head is always buzzing with this thought, that rant, those ’60s song lyrics. It’s in the garden that I feel quietest. Rarely completely silent, at least while I’m at my yard chores I feel a respite from problems, worries, work pressures, and the entire universe of adult troubles. Nothing matters but exactly what I am doing at precisely that moment. Peace.
I garden for the surprises. Since I have very little memory left as you know, sometimes I have to run a search on things I find in the yard. With no knowledge of having done so, I appear to have planted a French flounce poppy. Never knew there was such a thing. It looks like a cross between a four-inch cheerleading pompom and a handful of confetti. I bought the plant at The Natural Gardener, of course, but found the reference I needed here: http://www.reneesgarden.com/
Now that I’ve warmed to the topic, gardening offers all kinds of excellent reasons. Consider the retail possibilities: seeds, bulbs, plants, tools, stakes, trellises, fertilizers, soils, compost, mulches, more plants, new tools, cooler trellises, untried bulbs, more plants… Excepting those brief periods when I have been fit and slender, clothes shopping has never held great appeal for me. Why retailers haven’t realized they would sell far more merchandise if dressing rooms were lit from the floor with pink light bulbs, I cannot understand. But as long as it’s multiple mirrors and florescent light, no thanks. I’ll be shopping at the nursery. Nurseries.
Then there’s the sheer joy of ending a day’s physical labor with a cold drink and a hot bath. Throw in a handful of ibuprofen and take-out Thai food and you’ve had a fabulous day no matter what happens in the garden. But one of the most excellent pleasures still awaits: tomorrow is a whole nother day for walking out hour by hour, looking for new leaves, new buds, new flowers. The butterflies, the fist-sized baby rabbit holding motionless under the rosemary, the smells of salvia, bee tree, Jerusalem sage.
Oh, dear. And here I wasn’t going to go all lyrical. Sometimes it just can’t be helped.