Observing Life, As Opposed to Living It

“People who enjoy growing herbs or perennials are forever touting it to anyone who will listen. I listen politely, but I’m not converted. I would rather be taking a shower.”
Thus states Tim Johnson in an essay titled “The Reluctant Gardener” in Newsweek recently.
Johnson needs to be informed that we who tout plants are not interested in converting anyone. In the company we keep, as in the plants that we grow, our interest is more in quality than in quantity. Passion for plants, no less than belief in God, is something that comes from within. Plants teach patience, a virtue for which those who worship at the altar of instant gratification have no use. Regarding conversion: It is as useless to try to make people plant as it is to make them pray.
I am not a psychologist, but I cannot refrain from a little analysis of Johnson’s choosing to shower rather than work in the garden. Could it be that he associates gardening with getting dirty – a virtual no-no in our sanitized world – as opposed to taking a shower, which can only make you clean (at least on the outside)? He should learn the Russian proverb concerning those who cultivate the earth: “Dirty hands come with a pure heart.”
Johnson, unwittingly no doubt, reveals the source of his gardening reluctance in the following lines: “I am sometimes asked if I enjoy eating vegetables from my own garden … Well, I do enjoy eating the vegetables, but I see no contradiction in my aversion to growing them. I enjoy eating the vegetables from the supermarket just as much… Does that mean I should enjoy going to the supermarket?”
Johnson’s “aversion to growing” is the proclamation of a results-oriented, bottom-line person who has completely lost interest in the process – and the struggle – involved in creation and growth. If Johnson could put seeds in the ground and see them turn into lush vegetables without any effort on his part, he would happily grow vegetables. But since there is work involved – and no guarantee of favorable results – in growing them, he would just as soon get his vegetables at the supermarket, even if he doesn’t like that place either.
For Johnson, the fact that the first man – Adam – was a gardener is probably just a quaint circumstance with no contemporary significance. Yet Adam, who could have been created a hunter or a herdsman, was by divine determination a tiller of the earth. The message would appear to be that the most basic way for Adam, or any other human being, to understand the meaning of life is through an appreciation of the growth process, especially in plants. It is no coincidence that most great civilizations – including the American one – have had strong agrarian origins.
The problem of reluctant gardeners is their detachment from nature and from life. Poor Johnson, it turns out, is an editor of a Philadelphia newspaper. Newspaper editors are the classic shut-ins. Their daily task is to observe and to package life rather than to live it.
A trip to the nursery this time of year is an opportunity to explore the world of bulbs. Without thinking, you may soon be grabbing handfuls of chionodoxa, ixia and watsonia, helplessly seduced by pictures of their flowers on each bulb box.
Chionodoxa has star-shaped flowers in blue, white or pink, while ixia’s stellar blooms are orange, yellow or red. Ixia is native to South Africa, a country whose climate is a mirror of our own, and needs no summer water; it spreads underground by corms and reseeds above ground where the soil is well-drained. Watsonia is another South African native, also a corm, and has earned a reputation as one of the easiest bulbs to grow, reliably blooming year after year. It has long spikes of red, white, pink or lavender flowers. A corm, incidentally, looks like a true bulb – such as an onion – only it is made of solid tissue instead of peelable scales layered one on top of the other.
Ornamental onions (Allium spp.) are bulbs everyone should try at least once. Some of their spherical flower heads are enormous, reaching up to 12 inches in diameter. Spanish bluebells, sold locally as Scilla campanulata or Endymion hispanicus, present handsome spikes of bell-shaped flowers in blue, pink, or white; they quickly spread throughout a flower bed and will come up in your lawn if given half a chance.
Tip of the week: When selecting bulbs, always choose the biggest or fattest ones in the box. They invariably will produce the biggest flowers. Plant bulbs with the pointed side up at a depth equal to twice their diameter at the widest point. Well-drained soil makes for healthy bulbs. Making sure the soil is light and sandy thus should be the primary concern in the culture of bulbs, while watering and fertilization are secondary matters. Spread a mulch of compost on the soil surface after planting.

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