The money pit


People often refer to older houses, such as my circa 1900 barn, as money pits. But the real money pit is not the house. One actually lives in the house. A modern kitchen is a fine convenience. Ditto bathrooms. Improvements are necessary and, as every realtor shouts from the mountaintop, a smart investment.

The real money pit is the garden, the Mariana Trench of ruin for many of us. I do not dare tally up the amount of money poured into this bottomless pit via Green Fields, White Flower Farm, A.M. Leonard (tools for the horticultural industry since 1885) and Van Bourgondien (Dutch bulbs and perennials since 1893). It would embarrass me. And that’s merely the top of the ticket. I have not even touched on the horror of horrors: the water bill.

We are not alone in our misfortune. Others suffer, too. From Glen Burnie to Glyndon men and women (and even some unwilling children) of all faiths and colors and creeds and socio-economic backgrounds are pouring money into the wasteland that is their garden. Citizens in humble rowhouses and the squirearchy in baronial splendor on five tiny acres in the vale of tallyho are afflicted.
My wife is a slave to gardening. She plants. She moves said plants. They die. She replaces them. This may come from her early exposure to the fabled classic “Onward and Upward in the Garden,” the columns of Katherine S. White (Mrs. E.B.White) from The New Yorker. “Das Kapital” or “Mein Kampf” could not have changed a life more.

My wife likes to get down in the dirt on all fours. After an afternoon gardening, she looks as if she has been rolling around in the mud. I call her Pig-Pen after the child in the old Peanuts comic strip.
She does not find that endearing.

From March until November, she is in the garden. And she occasionally makes off-season forays there, too. I am her only helpmate, an unwilling gardener, and a grouchy conscript. So, over the years she has engaged various landscape service providers. Once, 10 young gentlemen from Mexico (because you can’t get a backhoe in our backyard) moved a hill. On another occasion she hired a high-end landscape designer, a rather formidable woman who told her officiously that she could not be helped. That went down well.

In the days of my youth, I was one of Lord Baden-Powell’s lads. I was a Boy Scout. And one of the surest signs of spring hereabouts is when the Scouts begin selling the crack cocaine of gardening: mulch. Mulch is a powerfully addictive substance for the would-be gardener. One toke and you are damned.

You put mulch down and it looks good for maybe 72 hours and then it disappears. And so you put more mulch down. I think of mulching as if I were literally scattering five- and 10-dollar bills in my yard. Just the same, I always buy 50 bags from the Scouts for old times’ sake. Be Prepared.

One thing that will occur to the gardening profligate or libertine is that the cost of the planting has nothing to do with its health or longevity. We have spent mad sums on exotic flora only to have them wither and die, sometimes within minutes of being planted. Perhaps they are unsuited to the Land of Pleasant Living?

On the other hand, a $19.99 hydrangea, the sort you see in the Giant next to the 50-pound bags of pork rinds, wandered in here one Mother’s Day 15 years ago and got tucked into the yard next to our garage. It is now the size of a Dodge Durango. It requires no attention. It could withstand nuclear attack. It has the shelf life of plutonium and it is insect-proof, too.

And that brings me to what the great nature boy Henry David Thoreau called “our insect foes in this adversity.” Most of those with green thumbs are surprised to find that the sage of Walden loathed insects. Mosquitoes were his particular targets. He was tramping through the deep woods before insect repellant was invented. He hated bugs.

My late father-in-law was in agreement with Thoreau. He maintained a cache of toxic chemicals at his gentleman’s farm on My Lady’s Manor that would have brought Greenpeace down on him today. His favorites were malathion and paraquat and he had jugs of the stuff. I am not even sure if you can buy the sort of thing he once stockpiled. But I can tell you one thing, aphids rode wide of his place. Those little sapsuckers knew my father-in-law was not a man to fool with.

I’m not a monster. I don’t want to defoliate the Amazon rain forest or clear-cut the Giant Redwoods. (I did threaten to pave our garden once, but I’d had a lot of coffee to drink.) But I do not wish to have a relationship with flora.

Yet I have a tender spot for crocuses. I always plant some in the fall. It takes five minutes. My wife despises them. They upset her color scheme. She has tried to prevent me from doing this. To no avail! I plant my secret garden along a bank, and the strong, late winter sun brings out the blooms. Jan. 25 was the first sighting last year!

Those sturdy, cheerful crocuses are the promise of a new season (and yes, of gardening, alas). I am always happy to see them. They remind me that the winter is slipping away and that hope springs eternal.

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