|May I say a few words about getting older?
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 ones 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
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.
Id like you to start at this edge and pull the pile away from the
rhododendrons. Its 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 neednt 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
You want to pull this ivy out of these trees, he advised, craning upward.
That English ivy, its one of my pet peeves. Itll kill a tree. Like I
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.
Dont worry, he sniffed with a faintly injured air. Ill
get it looking good. I always do.
I didnt 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. Ive got a lot of good ideas, he informed me, by way
of farewell. Im kind of an idea guy.
I dont 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 oclock Id 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 wasnt until the next morning that I was able to comprehend the entirety of
Lewiss 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 Felicias 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 Lewiss
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, dont think playing the age or
infirmity card is going to get others to do it like that; ergo, do it yourself even if it
2) Skirting the Scylla of neglect, it is possible to run afoul of the Charybdis of
3) If anyone ever, within the context of your personal earthly paradise, tells you that
hes 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.
In the Garden, Vol
In the Garden, Vol 1-3
In the Garden, Vol 1-4