The Gardener As Social Philosopher (Or Why It Is Impossible to Stick to the Point)

In 2005, I launched Bob’s Little Acre—“A Gardening Column. Sort of”­­­­—with the idea of writing a funny gardening feature. I failed miserably. Oh, I got a belly laugh here and there, an occasional grin in the grocery store, even once in a blue moon a letter. So perhaps I succeeded sometimes in the funny department – but I never wrote much about gardening! I did try. The original intent for Bob’s Little Acre was, as indicated in the end notes, “to play quietly in the dirt, disturbing no one.” That was my humble translation of Voltaire’s “tending one’s own garden,” which is to say, stop trying to make sense of the wider wickeder world and focus instead on what’s under one’s nose. A looser translation is: Stay out of trouble, stoopid! In my previous journalistic career, I had learned that practically anything I wrote could, unaccountably, inspire people to take a swing at me at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Why not, I asked myself, write about something innocuous this time? Something that nobody could possibly get mad about? Something like gardening? Alas! It was not to be. I’d set earnestly out to write about gardening attire but somehow that would lead me into a feminist bitch-rant about bras and burkhas. I would start out prattling gently about tulips and end up spitting vituperation at running-dog crony capitalist planet rapers. I would open a column discussing soil quality and close it howling like Pol Pot about the evils of materialism. A 2012 column entitled “Insects and the Single Girl,” which was intended to be a treatise on pest control as written, for reasons I no longer remember, by the late great Helen Gurley Brown (of Cosmopolitan fame), culminated in: “How’s a girl supposed to feel as she watches those in charge of education marauding through town like Cossacks, banning books, closing libraries, and stamping out the keen brave light of civilization?”

In my defense, those were crazy times in Olde Dade, that would have knocked Mother Teresa out of disturbing-no-one mode. But the point is, hard as I tried to write about horticulture, I couldn’t get there! Social justice metaphors were just too thick on the ground for anything to take root in my garden but the grapes of – There I go again. So I gave myself a good talking-to. You want to write about gardening, I told myself, stop with the metaphors already and write about gardening! Separate the wheat from the chaff, and for God’s sake stop sowing the seeds of discord! I didn’t make it past the first mow of spring. (I reckon it was just too long a row to hoe.) This time it was the mazus reptans. Majus reptans is a low groundcover with a beautiful little blue flower. It’s supposed to grow anywhere, so when we moved in here I planted it out back to hide a red raw bank that had been gouged into the mountainside to make a flat place for this house. Now, years later, the bank still looked like hell but I had to turn the lawnmower aside to spare the rivers of little blue flowers in the back yard. See, the mazus reptans didn’t want to grow on the red raw bank. It wanted to live in a nice place like the rest of the flowers, so it immigrated down to better topsoil. Same story with some mint my husband planted under the porch steps. He’d read that the mint would grow up through the risers and smell good when you stepped on it. What it did instead was spread into the front flowerbeds and invade my roses. Both instances reminded me of a James Michener novel I read in which a farmer keeps trying to secure laborers to work his fields. First he tries hiring an Italian family but they save up their money and buy land of their own. Then he tries Japanese immigrants but they achieve the American Dream even faster, so he tries Chinese and – You get the idea. Everybody wants a place in the sun! Nobody wants to live under the porch getting stepped on! It struck me then why I have such a hard time staying on topic: Those of us who garden simply cannot help thinking harder than others about the Big Questions. Do you think I’m glorifying my hobby? People do. I remember a book about collies by a crazy English dog lady in which she proclaimed: “Boys given collies as pets seldom grow into juvenile delinquents.” I am not saying gardeners are kinder or gentler than others. I spared the mazus reptans but I’m afraid my policy for members of the mint family is genocide. (And anybody who tries bringing more of it over here will get the same, before they’re up the driveway.) Still, I insist that a person who has eaten a perfect cantaloupe grown by accident after somebody spat a seed during a picnic, and then spent the next 15 years trying in vain to grow one on purpose, is better able to grasp the mysteries of the universe than someone who builds model trains. And gardeners are far less susceptible to the facile dogma of politicians or televangelists than those who, say, cross-stitch. The glib mendacity of seed catalogs and county extension agents has left us sadder but wiser than that. Anyway! What I meant to say here is that just as gardening has sustained what passes for my soul through times good and bad, Bob’s Little Acre has always been a cherished outlet for my tumble-jumble thoughts, and now that I have a home for it I will resume writing it as time permits. It is, after all, a big enough world that not every gardening column has to be about gardening …

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Stick a dollar in my garter, hon, if you want me to keep dancin'!

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