On the great list of things I never imagined myself doing, just above skydiving, back-country camping, and fire-fighting, is gardening.
Some background—I grew up in a city, in a series of apartments that were either too surrounded by concrete to have any sort of greenery or, if there was grass, someone else had to deal with it. To this day—and admitting this does shame me—I've never mowed a lawn.
Sure, I've had fleeting affairs with potted plants, most notably an aloe that grew to amazing proportions despite my utter and absolute neglect. But this was a rare success. Herbs died on the window sill. Hanging baskets were occluded by clouds of white flies. Iron-clad cacti turned to mush. To call my thumb brown would be to imply that I cared what color it was.
And then I moved to Knoxville. With those six little words, my entire attitude towards plants changed. Perhaps it's because the HGTV/DIY/Food Channel juggernaut is beaming out nesting instincts along with its TV signals. Could be that ORNL radiation has done something sinister to the nurturing centers of my brain. Or, most likely but much less interestingly, my new-found obsession with growing things simply is a product of buying a house.
Here is what's on my envelope-shaped lot, which has been mostly neglected for the last 10 years: two enormous sugar maples (which were a selling point), one dogwood, half-a-dozen dead or dying shrubs of various sorts, an overgrown holly bush that has been known to eat umbrellas, large patches of dirt, and a mound covered in strange plants and an astounding number of weeds. Note—there is no grass on the property. Not one blade.
Never underestimate the power of peer pressure. On either side, the "yard" is flanked by more typical examples of landscaping. The neighbor on the left has a textbook arrangement of green grass, paved paths, and trees. On the right, a storybook environment, full of blooming flowers, leafy trees, healthy shrubs, and, I swear, gnomes. Like a rotten tooth in the middle of a perfectly orthadontured smile sits my rag-tag collection of flora.
Clearly, professional help was needed. After a quick check of the home improvement budget, clearly professional help was not to be had, unless it was a professional with a strong sense of pity. And so, it was time to dive in, without even the slightest idea of the difference between an annual and a perennial, between a coreopsis and a ipomopis. The only saving grace is that the yard really couldn't look any worse.
Fortunately, the one thing in the yard's favor is my love of research. Paul James, HGTV's groovy, goofy gardening guy, on at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, became my guide through this arcane world. Although I'm a closet fan of Martha Stewart, I found more actual information in Rebecca's Garden, a magazine devoted to making gardening attainable even if you are, like me, an idiot. Pope's Garden Center near Maryville was my local connection for actual plant matter as well as advice on local plant-eating pests. At one point, I was even bringing plastic bags filled with bugs to them in order to find the best chemical to kill them with and the staff always remained patient, if somewhat grossed-out.
According to all of these folks, the first step in any successful endeavor is to test the soil in which you want to plant things. All you do is contact the local extension office (in Knox County, 215-2340) and ask for a kit. Then you fill up a box with soil, fill out a form, and drop the whole thing in the mail. Couple of weeks later, you get a list of what you've got and what you need to make it grow things.
Easy enough, one would think. The list I got, however, made virtually no sense. So I showed it to a chemist friend, who then asked me about my sampling habits, which seemed like a personal question. As it turns out, one should not take a sample from the ground that is directly underneath one's car, then mix that dirt up with all of the other dirt one has collected. Good to know.
Rather than dwell on the fact that this is the sort of mistake even a stump knows not to make, I decided to simply dig compost into everything in the hopes that the addition of organic matter would level out any irregularities in my dirt. This time last year, I did nothing but double dig—a process that every gardener should know, according to Paul and Rebecca, my gurus. All you do is dig a trench, piling that soil up in a convenient spot since you'll need it later. Dig another trench right next to the first, shoveling the dirt from that trench into the first along with a generous helping of compost, which you can buy at any local gardening center. Keep doing this until you reach the end of the area in which you are digging. Fill that trench with the dirt from the first trench. Voila! A perfectly prepared growing bed! As well as a lovely set of blisters, an aching back, and a deep, blinding hatred for heavy Tennessee clay.
Given how long the digging took—pretty much a full weekend for a 10-by-4 plot—I realized my plans to completely spruce up the yard were going to take a bit longer than the month I'd mentally budgeted for. Then I looked at all of the dandelions popping out of the soil, as well as the thriving, invasive wild strawberries and violets, and realized that I was, in a word, screwed. No way could I get this done in a year, much less a month. Crying followed, as well as some wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Day by frustrating day I kept at it—not because I am virtuous and believe in hard work, but simply because I had no choice. Weekends were full of projects of which I'd never before dreamed. I dug trenches. I hung out in gardening centers. I pulled weeds and the weeds came back. I pulled them again, and they came back again. I sprayed them with Round-up and they still came back, stronger than ever. I learned to live with them. Most of what I planted died, except, for some strange reason, peppers, both hot and sweet.
Then, right at the time I thought I'd have to kill someone if I had to deal with any more aphids or rotting tomatoes or sickly hostas, winter came. Everyone else's yard suddenly looked as crappy as mine. Bliss.
Now here's the part of the story when I'm supposed to say, "But, by the end of the winter, I couldn't wait to get back out into my garden and play in the lovely, fecund dirt. It had become a part of me! I was wrong." Hardly. By the end of the winter, I looked out on the brown earth and cursed it. Everything I had done the year before seemed to have disappeared. All of that work for nothing. Mother Nature had made me her whipping girl.
But the other day I noticed that some little bits of green were poking up out of the soil—a total surprise since they were perennials I planted last year and not a fresh crop of weeds. And the Burpee seed (www.burpee.com) catalogue arrived and I immediately started planning an unruly, unrealistic vegetable patch. And I pondered digging a trench or two, simply to achieve the Zen-like state you can get with heavy lifting in the warm spring sun.
So there's hope, I suppose, for both me and my patch of soil. For the next few years, it'll probably still look pretty ragged, simply because my ambition almost always outstrips my patience, endurance, and desire. But, this year, I may have some spinach or carrots or onions to have with my peppers, and that, I suppose, is good enough for now.