Voices | Sam Allis

It happens every spring

Gardeners miss out on a lot of relaxing downtime while planting and pruning

By Sam Allis
May 17, 2010

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Red alert: the gardeners are back. Run to the attic and barricade the door. After being cooped up all winter, they have emerged once again, their pupils dilated, poised to wallow in dirt through the rest of the summer.

Rabid gardeners — is there any other kind? — are now on parade at the likes of Mahoney’s and Russell’s garden centers, throwing plastic down for anything alleged to come out of the ground. Flowers, bushes, trees — it really doesn’t matter.

Then come the grass seed and fertilizer, anti-slug stuff, anti-bug stuff. Wheelbarrows and spades, kneeling pads and hoses. New gardening gloves and a jaunty hat. It goes on. And let’s not forget the conundrum of hedge clippers — do you go cordless or not? I haven’t the slightest intention of using one, but my advice is cordless. It looks easier. The long orange cords always seem to get tangled up on something.

I have no problem with gardeners as long as they leave me alone. No proselytizing about peonies. Gardens are beautiful. I enjoy them immensely. I swoon at lilacs and blue hydrangea. But I prefer to look at them, not plant them. I’m not anti-garden, I’m anti-Sam-gardening. Big difference.

Where, you ask, does my reticence come from? My lower back, for starters. I can rake, dig holes or trim bushes for an hour before my back is reduced to aspic. It then hurts for the rest of the day, through the night, and into the next day. I am many things, but masochist is not one of them.

Second, even if my back was fine, why would I ever want to get all sweaty and gross on a Sunday afternoon when I can relax on a chaise lounge under an umbrella up on the porch doing the Times crossword puzzle? I mean, really.

So on a typical Sunday afternoon, my wife grunts as she digs and plants while I ponder the three-letter name of a Swiss canton. The conversation entre nous goes something like this:

“Looking good, babe. Keep up the good work.’’

“Thanks, sweetie. Don’t strain yourself.’’

“Not to worry.’’

I’m impervious to sarcasm. One might expect me to feel guilty because I’m under the umbrella rather than down making mud pies. I don’t. We each do what makes us happy. My wife doesn’t bother me; it’s the passersby who scowl at me for letting my bride do the hard work. I remain unembarrassable and return to the puzzle.

There are, for the record, two kinds of gardeners: the real ones who do the scut work and those who design a garden, perhaps with a pricey consultant, and then have some poor prole do the sweaty labor.

Take the English garden. I’ve seen more than my share of them in coffee table books. I love English gardens. They’re breathtaking. But I know with a moral certainty that the chatelaine of some estate did not sully one of her manicured pinkies to produce the dazzling effect. No, I’m with the dirt-stained wretches like my better half.

I’m not mounting a full-fledged screed on gardeners. Someone’s got to do it, and besides, some of my best friends garden. (Consider where their mania might lead if it weren’t in the dirt.) But now that winter is over, we no longer compare anti-depressants and seasonal disorders at parties. Instead the subject turns to golf and gardening.

I would rather eat crushed glass than listen to a duffer talk about his short game, and a nest of gardeners holding forth is only marginally better. They speak in tongues about plants I’ve never heard of. I’ve learned, for example, that the formal name for a Peruvian lily is Alstroemeria. That sounds a lot like AstraZeneca to me, so that’s what I call it. And I do so with authority.

After a long day of planting, my friend Ethan put the last azalea bush in the ground at his home in D.C. What he did was scrape off the surface grass, put the azalea on top of it and pour mountains of dirt around it. His neighbor told him that was the wrong way to do it. Ethan nodded and then vectored inside for a drink. My kind of green thumb guy.

Sam Allis can be reached

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