Ah, spring, when gardening. Barbara Brotman, Chicago Tribune

April 27, 2010 at 7:54 AM Leave a comment


Ah, spring, when gardening

Barbara Brotman

Is there anything as beautiful as a garden in spring? Consider mine: It never looks as lush and charming as it does right now.

That’s because it doesn’t exist.

At least not in reality. But in my springtime imagination? You should see it.

Welcome to what for me is the best time of the gardening year — when it is warm enough to start fantasizing about it, but too early to actually do it.

For the overwhelmed gardener, the combination is perfect.

In early spring, my garden is purely hypothetical. It is the garden I intend to plant. And since it does not involve any actual gardening, it is fabulous.

My mind’s eye happily roves over its delights: charming flowers, intriguing foliage, nooks that inspire meditation, plants that attract butterflies. There are native wildflowers, a ferny shade garden and a pond.

I intend to plant it every year. I just never do.

But never mind my previous defeats. It’s not even May yet; this year, anything is possible.

And thinking about it is so pleasant. How I enjoy my mental spring gardening, since it takes no effort, time or money. It prompts no guilt, either. No need to berate myself for not taking action; I still plan to do so, just as soon as there is no possibility of a freeze.

Enjoy it while it lasts, folks. You can only luxuriate in the planning stage for so long. If you think the actual gardening season in Chicago is short, you should see the lightning speed with which the hypothetical growing season ends.

The fantasy may be enjoyable, but the reality turns out to be daunting. Gardening projects are gargantuan time-eaters. I once reworked a small area of my front yard. It took me weeks, often working entire days. I could only manage it because I had taken a four-month leave of absence from work.

Even small jobs can defeat the hypothetical gardener. I am afraid to address the small patch of dirt in front of my hedges because I think I need a complete landscaping plan first. I would hate to put in wildflowers only to find out that I should have put in shrubs. No plan; no planting.

And once you could, in theory, do your gardening, you feel terrible if you are not, in fact, doing it.

Optimism gardening is therefore a brief pleasure. By Mother’s Day, it’s pretty much over.

First my good intentions start to waver. I face the fact that any gardening takes time and ideally a good design sense, and that I have little of either. And the yard needs so much work that I don’t know where to start. So I don’t.

In June, I start to feel like a failure. Everyone else’s gardens look so beautiful, while after nearly two years of digging, poisoning and suffocating with landscape cloth, I have still failed to kill a stubborn stand of weeds. It’s nice that cockroaches will have a habitat after they and my weeds survive a nuclear holocaust, but the implications for my fantasy garden are grim.

By July, I can’t imagine what I was thinking in April. My lawn’s brief flirtation with greenness has ended, badly. My clay soil has hardened in the kiln-like sun, new weeds poking up through the cracks in the crust. I am too demoralized at this point to do more than spritz the old weeds with another round of herbicide.

By August, I am paralyzed. It is too hot and too late to plant, too consuming of what’s left of summer. And as for September, forget it. Psychologically, if not actually, I’m done. Another year, another gardening failure.

Benjamin Carroll, senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, understands the spring optimism/summer pessimism phenomenon. He urges fantasy gardeners not to lose heart.

“Choose something small to start with and focus on that,” he said. “If you do too much, you lose everything. You get overwhelmed. … Don’t make a big, grand plan. Choose a few things you know you will probably do well, and make a small plan.”

I may require another tack, one involving my highly talented landscape designer friend and a team of burly workers. That’s what it took to finally transform a section of front yard I had fantasy-gardened every spring for years. Sometimes a spring gardener needs a summer push.

Yet part of me wishes we gave some recognition to this annual exercise in good intentions. Why can’t fantasy gardening get as much respect as, say, fantasy football? We could organize leagues and trade imaginary perennials.

Hope may not spring eternal, but in spring it is in full supply. Let’s take a moment to savor it.

To those who manage to turn hope into action, I give a gardening-gloved salute. Meanwhile, here’s to the classic spring garden, blooming with optimism, if nothing else.


Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune

Entry filed under: Garden Humor.

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