Watching Things Grow

Now that the days are growing shorter, and the marigolds are so big that no weed comes near them, I wonder how I can face next spring’s gardening. If one more person, just one more, asks me with an upward look and a quaver in the voice whether I don’t love working in the earth and watching things grow, I shall go quietly but definitely out of my mind.

It took me a little while to learn what can and what cannot be said to confirmed gardeners. My first lesson came from Miss Stephenson next door — whose delphiniums reach five feet when mine are still breaking the ice in the pitcher. She watched me tug at a bad piece of witch grass, perspiration dripping from my chin. ‘Is n’t it thrilling?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you love to work in your garden and watch things grow?’

‘No,’ I said, in the simple innocence of my first year among the chosen, ‘I do it as a painful duty. My trouble is that I was born a New Englander, and I must have things tidy. But as pleasure I think gardening ranks with spring house cleaning and Simonizing the car.’

Miss Stephenson looked at me for a minute without speaking. It came over me, dulled with toil as I was, that a fundamentalist looks at an atheist in just that way.

Then she pulled out a tremolo stop and gave me of her best — something about the miracle of creation. I wiped the drops from my chin and said no more. It is not true that I threw a stalk of ragweed at her.

I don’t watch things grow. I pull them up. Only the weeds do much growing anyway, and my habits are not such that I could watch them even if I wanted to. They grow in the night, and on rainy days. When the sun and I come out, there they are — the size and shape of Miss Stephenson’s delphiniums, but more muscular. It’s a miracle, but I don’t sing Te Deums about it.

I did n’t know gardening was like that. When we bought the old colonial house a year ago — white paint, green shutters, big fireplaces, all the rest — we were in transports over the gardens. Plot upon plot of them — neglected for some time, it is true, but with daffodils and roses and hollyhocks still bravely pursuing their seasons. I little realized the developments in weed circles in the interregnum, or what the situation would mean to me personally.

So I keep on pulling them up. I carry basketful after basketful of their limp corpses to the dump heap in the hollow, which is, I think, growing a little smelly. Caterpillars crawl on me and rosebugs creep down my neck. I kneel where the dogs have preceded me. I lug stones around and they fall on my toes, making funny black spots. My knees ache, and I am tanned in strange places.

But it’s not these things — at least I think it isn’t — that have got me down. It’s the other gardeners. One after another they come, starry-eyed, and ask, ‘Don’t you love to feel so close to Mother Earth?’ ‘Is n’t it wonderful to be able to create so much beauty?’ I can’t yet think quickly enough of the right answers.

The other day it was a white-haired clergyman who knows how to make rosebugs say an eternal farewell to roses. We discussed that, seeing eye to eye. But at last he asked me — you know what. ‘No, I think it’s a tiresome business,’ said I, blunt as ever, picking a thorn from the ball of the finger I use almost exclusively for typing. His face changed. Instantly I saw the enormity of the thing I had done. Here he was, approaching the serene eventide of a noble life, and I had told him I did not believe. I did n’t sleep very well that night.

It’s different, of course, if you’re one of the admiring friends who visit my garden. (They come, upon my invitation, in wide hats and loose gloves, with baskets and shears, and cut roses that they take home and drape in slender vases. I can see why they think the magic of creation is pretty thrilling.) Or if you’re one of the purposeful souls who start out vigorously in the spring buying little flats of growing things from gentlemen who are n’t in business for their health and who say little about the joy of watching things grow. (These firstof-the-season gardeners set out their sprouts in the cool of an evening, chirruping the while. After that, every week or so they telephone the Italian down the street, saying that the garden looks pretty bad, and how about it?) Or if you have on your place English John, whose father still takes care of the estate in the old country, though he s going on eighty. I confess that I never tire of watching the Johns of this world pull things up.

But I labor with my own hands in the vineyard in the heat of the morning; every morning when it does n’t rain — that’s when I transplant. And when the rains are over and my heavyweight weeds get discouraged, my work is not done. I spent this morning under bushes which had n’t been trimmed for weeks, encompassed about by empty husks of strange beetles, a little like dwarf June bugs, which obviously died last year, if not earlier. I was unhappy.

I wonder about that Hungarian down on the river road. They say he did very well with his vineyards in the Carpathians.