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Viriditas Digitalis


May I say a few words about getting older?

Thank you.

The subject is particularly on my mind -- and, I wager, on the minds of many other gardeners in the post-whippersnapper phase of life -- as spring advances on us. The obligations of the moment are growing all too apparent, as the first ominous dumptruck-load of mulch wings its way to the Capistrano of one’s very own property, and suddenly indoor comforts are 1) nothing but a distant memory or 2) still an actuality, but a guilty one.

In my youth, a couple of years ago, I actually used to look forward to these vernal displays of renewal etc., bolting forth wild-eyed from hibernation to take up arms against the natural world and, by opposing, nearly end it. Weighty bales of peat moss were as microchips to me in those halcyon days. Though typically I react to unscheduled visits by peering suspiciously through a slit in the Venetian blinds and then not answering the door, I rejoiced at unannounced appearances by friends, whose presence gave me the opportunity to strike attitudes in front of the lavender bed.

Gradually, however, certain facts began to emerge. One of these was that for each full day I spent hauling brush, digging holes into the nearest water main or underground cable, or grubbing weeds out of the flower beds on my hands and knees, I would have to spend one full day sniveling in bed in a state of semi-paralysis. Too, mishaps abounded. To cite only one of the more unhappy examples, even a childhood spent watching cartoons did not prevent me from actually sawing off a tree limb I was sitting on. In short, I confronted the pusillanimous need for yard help.

So I lined some up. During a recent visit, my friend Rosamund had grown as rhapsodic as her personal demeanor of elegant reserve would allow concerning the merits of her free-lance yard man, Lewis. I insisted she hand over his telephone number without delay, which she did, and I phoned him up and arranged for him to stop by my place on the following day.

At lunch time I hurried home from the office and found him already waiting for me. As a specimen he was something of a disappointment: hardly Bunyanesque (well -- maybe John, but not Paul), his appearance was that of a pipe-cleaner fitted out with a baseball cap and an expression of the highest possible self-regard. I looked him up and down and felt I might make short work of him in hand-to-hand combat should the need arise -- a prescient thought, as it turned out.

I suggested we make a quick survey of the terrain so that I could point out what I wanted him to do. In these tasks -- specifically, edging the flower and shrub beds and spreading mulch thereon -- he displayed a complete lack of interest, preferring instead to quote himself reverently on a wide variety of horticultural topics, and stopping at one point to recite an appalling bit of doggerel which fortunately I have forgotten.

Wresting him from these stream-of-consciousness ruminations, I steered him with some difficulty to the mulch pile.

“I’d like you to start at this edge and pull the pile away from the rhododendrons. It’s smothering them,” I told him. I felt a little guilty issuing this directive. After all, here I stood, to all appearances somewhat able-bodied or at least able to walk on my own steam, indolently parceling out the dirty work to someone else so that I could, perhaps, loll about in a deck chair on the terrace, filing my nails.

I needn’t have worried, though, because Lewis slid his eyes away from the mulch pile as quickly as ever he could. Apparently it was foul and unseemly in some way beyond my comprehension.

“You want to pull this ivy out of these trees,” he advised, craning upward. “That English ivy, it’s one of my pet peeves. It’ll kill a tree. Like I always say--”

But here I cut him short, feeling that I had already had a representative sampling of what he always said, and needing to get back to my office. “Be sure to edge out the beds sharply,” I reminded him, fully aware that I myself had never done such a thing in all my days.

“Don’t worry,” he sniffed with a faintly injured air. “I’ll get it looking good. I always do.”

I didn’t care for his thank-god-you-called-me-in-time implication. I liked it even less when he leaned confidentially against my truck on one razor-sharp elbow as I was trying to pull away. “I’ve got a lot of good ideas,” he informed me, by way of farewell. “I’m kind of an idea guy.”

“I don’t want you to have any ideas,” I replied, gunning the engine. “I just want you to mulch the beds.”

For the rest of the afternoon I fretted mildly, but by degrees the idea that I might actually come home from work and find things looking spruce and ship-shape took hold, and by six o’clock I’d begun to feel pleased at having divested myself of a certain amount of inconvenient, if necessary, labor. I had a quick dinner with a friend and hurried home afterward, straining to see in the gathering darkness.

The first thing I noticed as I started up the front walk was a looming shape that I gradually identified as a brush pile. Surprisingly long sticks were poking out of it here and there. Concerned, I turned to survey the beds, approximately one-tenth of which had received a haphazard coating of mulch. Something seemed seriously amiss, and with dawning horror I realized what it was.

For five years I had been painstakingly training the noisette rose “Mme. Alfred Carrière” to climb up a dogwood tree in the front yard. Only that morning I had noted with satisfaction that it had finally reached the crown of the tree and would doubtless be tumbling down in a great white waterfall by May. Unfortunately, its network of canes had caught the vigilant, ivy-seeking eye of Lewis, the idea guy. Perhaps bored with applying teaspoonsful of mulch here and there on the beds, he had gone to work on “Mme. A. C.” with a vengeance. Left of the erstwhile showpiece were two naked canes approximately two feet in length.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I was able to comprehend the entirety of Lewis’s ministrations. He had demolished two “Henryii” clematis that I had been weaving into a shrubby clump of the hybrid musk rose “Felicia.” Apparently after the orgiastic rooting-out process Lewis had been too spent to remove the broomstraw-thin clematis stems from “Felicia”’s clutches: they drooped about here and there, stirring dispiritedly in the occasional breeze. A passing tumbleweed would not have been out of place in the tableau. Repeated urgent calls to Lewis’s household went unanswered: perhaps he had already decamped, leaving no clue as to the pathology behind the massacre.

I have been trying to look at all this philosophically. Naturally I blame society, and Lewis of course, but after that -- a distant third -- I blame myself. What could I, an unfit parent, expect, having hastily dropped off dear little Dick and Jane at the Medea Day Care Center and sped away? Though I am disinclined to view life as a series of edifying parables, several possible interpretations of the events suggest themselves:

1) If you want a thing done a certain way, don’t think playing the age or infirmity card is going to get others to do it like that; ergo, do it yourself even if it kills you.

2) Skirting the Scylla of neglect, it is possible to run afoul of the Charybdis of destruction.

And finally,

3) If anyone ever, within the context of your personal earthly paradise, tells you that he’s an “idea guy,” go directly into your house, come out with the nearest shotgun or revolver, and tell him to get the hell off of your property before you blow him to Kingdom Come.

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See also:

In the Garden, Vol 1-2
In the Garden, Vol 1-3
In the Garden, Vol 1-4

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