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Michael Perry: Practicing horticulture as hope

February 4, 2019
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Michael Perry

Lately I have been trending dark and maudlin, which may be a reflection of our times, or, less complicatedly, a reflection of self-centered whininess, so today I will try to go for a laugh, even or especially at my own expense. Fortunately, last night it was 18 below and I spoke at a master gardening conference, so material is at hand.

The comic irony of addressing master gardeners on a winter’s night when the mercury is polar negative is outweighed by the purpose inherent in their gathering. You needed only watch the participants hustle stiffly from their cars to the conference center to understand they were here not only to draw on the warm memories of soft soil, but to bank that heat and carry it forward until the sprouting season returns. These were the more forward-looking ants from Aesop’s grasshopper fable, gathering this winter to prepare the stores of next winter. They were preparing to prepare meals to be eaten a year from now. Currently their gardens were as hard as the asphalt lot where the motor oil in our parked cars had gone to taffy before we even got our name tags, but what better time to talk gardening than when you can’t do gardening?

Speaking of “can’t do gardening,” there I was. I spoke from the heart, and I spoke from incompetence. The heart part grew mostly from my childhood memories; of the sound the wooden row marker made as Dad dragged it through the fluffy soil, the crisp crack of a carrot freshly rinsed beneath the hose tap, the sound of squash leaves moving in a warm breeze, the slow reveal surprise as the contents of the annual “mystery seed packet” cracked the dirt and reached for the sun and gave up their identities through the shape of their leaves. And more recently, the asparagus patch that sprouts as an annual living reminder of my wife and her prescience, as it was she who planted it while I was procrastinating elsewhere.

Then we arrived at the incompetence portion of the presentation. As an adult my love of gardening has been hamstrung by a lack of discipline, patience and production. As I described my misadventures — ordering seeds based on impulse rather than hardiness zones, assuming I could cause to emerge from the earth the same plants I saw in the catalog’s pictures, planting the wrong plants at the wrong time in the wrong place — I hoped I was making these accomplished pros feel better about themselves. But I was also intrigued to see that even in a roomful of eminently accomplished gardeners, there was something in the laughter and nodding heads that spoke of recognition. Of that common experience when nature gets the better of us. Afterward, when we shared stories informally, no one told me about the world-record tomatoes they’d grown; rather, they regaled me with the times things had gone delightfully wrong. Happy failure may be humanity’s most undervalued trait.

Back in the parking lot I let our poor old van idle a bit before putting it in gear. The lot was nearly empty, the gardeners gone home or to hotels to bed. On the morrow they would return for a day filled by expert talk of raised beds, perennials, vegetable basics, bulbs, flowers and more. When the frozen earth unlocks itself they will be prepared, putting in practice horticulture as hope.

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