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GARDENING

Cultivating comfort

Kim Smith gardens in a two-piece 'Chinese worker outfit' of woven indigo cotted imported from one of her favorite Parisian stores, sinologie.com, which sells traditional Chinese clothing. Her straw garden hat is by S.F. Green and it's the second one she's bought because she likes the wide brim and it doesn't fall off.
Kim Smith gardens in a two-piece "Chinese worker outfit" of woven indigo cotted imported from one of her favorite Parisian stores, sinologie.com, which sells traditional Chinese clothing. Her straw garden hat is by S.F. Green and it's the second one she's bought because she likes the wide brim and it doesn't fall off. (Globe Staff Photo/Michele McDonald)

Garden parties have always been dress-up occasions. But, let's face it. Most of the time you spend in your garden, you're on your hands and knees pulling up weeds, not serving tea to guests like the lady of the manor in some episode of ``Masterpiece Theater."

So how does one dress to actually garden? You don't want to be the least beautiful thing in your own garden, but everything you wear is going to get dirty, and probably sweaty, too, so it had better be washable.

``I don't want to look like a total grub when I garden. I like clothes that have a little style and a little fun," said Kim Smith of Gloucester, who designs interiors and gardens. One of her favorite gardening outfits is an inexpensive and washable but chic ``Chinese worker outfit" of woven indigo cotton imported from one of her favorite Parisian stores, sinologie.com (www.sinologie.fr) , which sells traditional Chinese clothing. ``It's roomy and covers my arms so I don't sunburn. The top has four pockets, the pants three."

Therapist Judy Arons of Milton agrees that cotton is hard to beat for combining prettiness and practicality. She gardens in calf-length cotton skirts and sun dresses. ``Skirts give me more range of motion and I can just pick up the edge of a hem and throw in a couple of heads of broccoli or a few tomatoes when I'm harvesting." She thinks skirts are prettier than pants. ``I do care how I look when I'm gardening. I'm competitive with the flowers. I like to feel aesthetically a part of it."

Retail store designer John Prendergast of Sharon likes to garden in clothes that are practical and comfortable, but coordinated. But when the mosquitoes are out, he'll layer on separates made of netting designed especially for gardeners, including a safari hat he found through a gardening magazine. The rest of the time he favors shorts, sports shirts, and a baseball cap. He also wears Merrell waterproof shoes and long all-purpose stretchy gloves from Ironman.

Performance engineering is filtering down from the world of outdoor adventure wear. Though it's not as dangerous as whitewater canoeing, gardening has its little frisson of risk. Some gardeners wear stirrup pants with socks pulled up over them as protection from ticks, and wide brimmed hats protect against skin cancer. Wide brimmed straw hats such as the one Kim Smith wears from S.F. Green Co. are still the most popular, but Australian-style hats with neck flaps, often chemically treated to block harmful ultraviolet rays, are gaining fans.

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Shoes, hats, and gloves are more ergonomically designed than ever before and incorporate modern materials. Sharon landscape designer Adriana O'Sullivan wears a crownless halo hat from the San Diego Hat Company that is 25 percent polyester and 75 percent paper. Lightweight, it breaths and rolls up so she can pack it.

The traditional calf-high Wellingtons and lace-up leather gardening boots have been almost totally replaced by rubber or plastic clogs that can be slipped off at the back door so mud is not tracked into the house. And now these are being challenged by sportier hybrid slip-ons made by shoe manufacturers such as Muck Boots and Keen, which produce multi-layered, comfortable footbeds that breathe but are as waterproof and indestructible as plastic.

But gardening getups will never go totally high tech. There are just too many people who garden first thing in the morning in their pajamas for that to happen. Gardening is one of those hobbies people do in the privacy of their backyards. Some wear carpenter's overalls. Others swear by hospital scrubs, while still others don cargo shorts and a T-shirt with a bikini underneath so they can jump in the pool when they get hot.

Carol Stocker is the author of ``The Boston Globe Illustrated New England Gardening Almanac."

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