The unjoy of gardening

My mother, peace be upon her, was a gardener. When she and my father retired and moved down to a house on the property my husband and I bought, the two acres of land around the old house filled her with joy. She shaped it, debated which kind of raspberries were better for our area, tried artichokes (not a success–too many bugs down in the thistles) and a dozen kinds of winter squashes (Red Kuri was her favorite, or maybe Sweetmeat, hard to decide) and often the first thing you’d hear in the morning would be the skritch skritch of her hoe in the dawn. When she died, we found that she’d kept her detailed journal of everything she’d done in that house, fifteen years of trial and error, and success. In a house we moved out of ten years before. The loved the process, she loved the labor, she found it all meditative and immensely satisfying.

I would help her. Reluctantly, when muscle was needed. I learned the basics of how to keep plants alive and bearing, and can tell you the details of gopher wire and soil amendments. But as soon as something else came up, the garden would languish, the weeds would appear, and the more vulnerable plants would turn up their roots to the heavens.

She would tell me that gardening was a thing for older people, that with small kids, no wonder I turned around and found the perennial bed buried under blackberries. That I’d come to like gardening, really I would. Like Vita Sackville-West, I suppose, for whom writing came decidedly second.

Okay, I’m about to turn 55, and I still hate gardening. I pull weeds and curse, I hunt gophers and I swear, I buy plants and forget about them until they’re withered brown stumps in a pot. I like looking out the window and seeing fuchsias blooming instead of poison oak, but if I could find someone who would do it, and do it right, without costing me an arm and a leg, I’d drop my trowel in a minute.

One of the things that pleased her most in her final days—literally, in the hospital—was the knowledge that she had a granddaughter showing an interest in gardening. Maybe the genes skipped a generation.

But I pull weeds and I baby the lawn back to greenness and I hack holes in the earth for gopher wire baskets and new plants, because we’re having a Big Party here the end of October, and we don’t, after all, want to be actively ashamed of the surroundings. And people will say how nice it looks and exclaim when they find out I Did It All Myself and wonder how I have the time, and after the party I’ll turn my back on the thing and hope the automatic watering system keeps some of the plants alive.

Because in fact, I hate gardening.

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  1. Becky Levine on September 13, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Ditto. Me, too.

    When my father was a very young child in Southern California, he went on Art Linkletter’s show. Remember Art? Well, this was when he was on the radio, BEFORE his tv show. Somewhere in my parents’ things is the 45 record that we listened to when WE were growing up.

    One of the questions Art asked the kids was, of course, what they wanted to be when they grew up. He got a lot of the typical answers–teacher, firefighter, nurse, police officer. Then you hear this little voice–my dad’s–saying, “Either a veterinarian or a botanist.”

    He grew up and practiced veterinary medicine for 30+ years and grew cool things in his backyard. Then he retired and joined the group of volunteers just getting started on the San Luis Obispo Botanical Gardens.

    Okay, besides the pressure of growing up with someone who’s known since they were FOUR what they wanted to do…well, I have the black thumb in the family. Can’t grow a thing. Don’t really want to. My husband kills the poison oak on our property; if you want anything else dead, you call me.

    Good to hear I’m not alone in the world!

  2. nkk1969 on September 13, 2007 at 11:27 am

    This is why I like canning blackberry jam and jelly. Picking the berries is a joy because you can roam the side of the mountain in solitude (because the minute you announce your intention of going berry picking, the family mysteriously vanishes). You do not have to cultivate the vines/bushes. They do a great job all by themselves. The added bonus is all your friends and family think you’re a great at growing things, though if they’d stop and think about it for two seconds you’d be had. 😉

    Did I forget to mention I kill houseplants?

  3. Teresa on September 13, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    You have described perfectly the difference between loving to garden and loving to have a garden. The two types could not be more different, as you’ve found. A good response to comments on an overgrown garden I’ve found is: We’re changing over to all native plants. 😉

  4. Kerry on September 13, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    I think that’s how I feel about cooking, and I would definitely be one of Teresa’s “loves to have a garden” type. I’m lucky that my townhouse has approximately 8 square feet of diggable dirt outside, some of which is occupied by manadatory boring holly bushes. It leaves me just enough space to get my “digging” itch scratched and to support a gloriously untamable lantana, a small selection of fresh herbs, and a few pots of tomatoes. Perfect.

    A few years ago, I decided to try growing houseplants for the first time in a couple of decades. At first, I was thrilled at how well they did. Now it’s another chore that I don’t need. They may all go away soon . . .

  5. Naomi on September 13, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Hooray, hooray, someone else at last admits gardening is drudgery.

    The only part I enjoy is getting out my loppers and chainsaw and hacking away at the undergrowth, removing all that hideous circa-1950 ‘landscaping’. Death to yews!

    That’s why I love peonies and lilacs. Plant ’em and ignore ’em. 50 years later they’re still beautiful.

  6. Gail on September 13, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you Laurie! Again! 30 years ago I approached my avid gardener Grandmother (1 acre of flowers and 1 acre of fruits and vegetables and your description of your mother just brought her back so clearly to me), but I went to her to ask about growing tomatoes now that I had some ground to do it in. She gave me detailed instructions and those instructions were enough to make me realize that I didn’t want to do this. She then turned to me and said, “You know this is a lot of work – you may not want to do it.” So now I have 2 cherry tomato plants in pots and buy locally grown tomatoes and think of her, but I will never, never have a big garden.

  7. riobonito on September 13, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    I am a gardener. I have people ask me how much time I spend ‘working’ in my garden. I am always struck by that word ‘work’. It’s those times that I realize the difference. Yes there are times I get sick of watering/work etc. Overall the rewards are fulfilling and exciting. That is how you can tell a true gardener. They get excited in Fall, because they can plant things that will pay off in Spring. It’s like any other true gifting. Laurie spends months doing research for a novel, it’s a tremendous amount of work. She has a vision for her novel, just as any gifted person has visions for whatever God has blessed them with. I have people ask me all the time about how do something in my garden. I can tell they want the result without the work or toil. Honestly I give them a polite short answer, as I know they will not do anything about it are just caught up in the moment of the fragrance sweet peas or lilies…so yes it’s work..but it’s joy and the creative juices are cooking! Thanks Laurie for letting us hear about your Mama and her garden. My first memory, at three years old, was hiding behind the Larkspur in the garden, while my own gardening Mama, gave my older sister directions about washing my hair. This is my first year without my Mama, and I planted Larkspur in her memory and of that day. I hope your event in October is just wonderful and you dazzle your guests with your garden, no matter how long it last.

  8. wsmvgn on September 17, 2007 at 9:59 am

    My parents had a victory garden, so called even though this was post-war days. They grew vegetables and flowers. Dad was a particular fan of gladiolis, we had hundreds of bulbs and they were a year-round occupation. One plants the bulbs in a trench 9″ wide, 9″ deep, and infinitely long. My particular role (at age 9) was dirt movement, Dad’s role was trench dimension certification. How I hated it. Now out on my own, I rarely garden. A few times I got stuck when my then wife bought flats of flowers and then took ill. But only in the last couple years have I been willing to buy and plant stuff on my own.

    At a church mission I was involved in years ago, some of the parisheners were talking about having such gardens on the site of the future church. I asked if there was water on the property, and people looked at me as if I’d just made a rude noise. Ladies and gentlemen, a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds and covers about a square yard of ground. Gardening without water on side is like breathing without air. I knew immediately that the whole project was amateur night.

  9. 2maple on September 17, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    Gardening to me is a place to let my mind free-wheel, spin and wander…I guess I don’t think of it as work…or maybe it just because there are other types of work I like infinately less…

    I suppose we each find our own place and it would be boring if they were all the same.

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