A Gardener's Guilt

Spring was good, but then this gardener got the midsummer lazies.

guilt_before

(Illustration by Brooke Shelton)

Every spring I am flush with enthusiasm for my garden. I can't wait to dig and plant, plant and mulch. I can't wait to see who's poking his head up, who's going to bloom, whose return I can celebrate. But one return I don't relish: my gardening guilt. As temperatures creep into the 90s, my enthusiasms wane. Saturday arrives, and what I really want to do is put my feet up and read. Later I'm after a nap, and later still I want full immersion in the local pool.

What I don't want is to be half naked, covered in topsoil, unable to wipe the salt stream from my eyes. Nor do I want the sun glaring down on my blistering shoulders. Or the steam hugging my sunglasses. Yes, I want a beautiful, fragrant garden like my neighbor has. But I also want clean fingernails. Actually, what I'd like is to set my neighbor to work for a few hours.

So I think up guilt-preventing schemes. I can garden ten minutes each morning when I let the dog out. Just not this morning. I can look into ordering a sprinkling system. That's part of gardening, right? I could go buy the mulch for tomorrow's stint. Or I could lie down.

But midway through my languid fantasies and rogue rationales, the plants begin to stare at me. They suck in their cheeks. They call out to the neighbors for help. Some of them picket my house. Some of them even die on me, martyrs for the others.

guilt_after

(Illustration by Brooke Shelton)

Death, of course, activates me. I grab my favorite small shovel and begin digging holes for the six pots of salvia languishing on my front stoop since last Friday. If I bury everything that's staring at me (I think this was Poe's way of thinking also), then peace will come. In a half hour or so, I'm done, and the front garden looks renewed, like a kid after a bath. I pat the mulch back into place, and rinse the leaves. I look around. Not one parched plant stares back. Guilt has slid off me, soaked with the plants into the topsoil, and in a moment I'm showering.

As I do, however, I wonder why I have to go through this anguish each weekend. What's this guilt about? I canvas my friends who apparently are not so afflicted. One simply mows everything down and has done with it. Another feels guilty for gardening too much and for the envy he stirs in his lazier neighbors. And another is more philosophical: once she sets the plants out, it's their job to fend for themselves. (This only reminds me of how I feel about my children.)

The source of my guilt, I decide, has to do with money, and the clash between desire and indolence. What motivates me to garden is rarely something like weeding or mulching. It is instead the purchase of $100 worth of perennials, which at that-- moment in the air-conditioned store--I can picture slipping easily into one of my flower beds that very afternoon. Of course, $100 worth of spirea and coneflowers and peonies and butterfly bushes is more than I can comfortably plant. Because to set them out requires weeding, spreading a bit of composted manure, followed by mulching. Often, after one or two hours in the hot sun, my guilt is gone but a third of the plants remain unplanted. And that's when the staring begins.

One remedy of course is to buy less. But at the time I think that's foolish--it will only require me to return. It's much like being in the grocery store: while I'm here and hungry, I'll buy a bit of this and that. And oh, that's on sale. Three weeks ago I bought three azaleas just because they were on sale, and I don't even like azaleas. Now they function solely as three witches on my front stoop harping at me each time I pass.

My other deadly flaw is the rumba between mother and father that occurs in my head. My mother loved pleasure; she is the voice that tells me, "Just garden when you really want to. Otherwise make a plate of fudge and eat it all." My father loves discipline: "Get your taxes done by April 15," he starts telling me in January, "or go to jail." This, of course, has nothing to do with gardening. But I absorb and apply its principle to all areas.

guilt_new_header

(Illustration by Brooke Shelton)

Perhaps I am genetically doomed to be the passionate gardener motivated by guilt. But I have also instituted a few guidelines to help me. For starters, it's a good thing not to buy more flowers at one time than I can plant in two hours. If the unplanted flowers aren't there to stare, I can't feel guilty. And my other rule: if I've got pots already shouting at me at home and tulips that need dividing and irises that say they're ready to split, I'm not allowed to buy anything at all. This is a very good rule.

My final fix: If the guilt gets too much, I pick one short task and do it, like weeding one bed. This gets rid of guilt and in a half hour, I am on the porch, lemonade in hand.

What mostly happens, however, is that once I start gardening, I cannot stop. I begin to remind myself of Charlie Chaplin's factory schlub who twists with his wrenches whether he is on the assembly line or not. I dig, pluck, transplant and hose down. And then, as usual, with my dirty nails, baseball cap and grimy T-shirt, I stare at this unbelievable beauty called my garden, free until next Saturday but also glad for the guilt that moves me.

— Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a contributing editor for Health, Alternative Medicine and Arthritis Today magazines. She is writing With and Without Her, a memoir about being and losing a twin.

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