Fifty Ways to Avoid Readying Your Garden for Spring
Ordinarily, my garden and I are embarrassing to be around. I can’t keep my hands off it; visitors, work, and children are all mere obstacles on the path of true pleasure. Just run your fingertip over the soft saucer of this quince blossom; gaze upon the magenta flower of this pineapple sage; notice the veiny strength of a banana leaf, the transfixing cleverness of a single vine tendril twirling into space. I have love-sickness, plant lust, mentionitis (did I tell you I have a garden?). I simply can’t keep away.
During these late days of winter, though, I find myself oddly busy with other things. Only a few months ago, I was fantasizing about acquiring a head torch so that I could tend my currant bushes after dark. Now I look down on the wasteland that was once my garden and experience merely . . . shame. It’s normal to feel guilty about gardening: not doing enough, not knowing where to start. But late winter—when the days lengthen, the light lifts, and one is confronted with twelve million nasty tasks left undone—is the guiltiest season of them all. Every handbook is banging on about the year’s time-honored cycle, about readying one’s plot for burgeoning life; like newborn lambkins, we should be quiveringly eager to begin. And yet . . .
It isn’t just the lashing rain and chilly mud, the morose clattering of plastic pots asexually reproducing in the corners. It’s that, when gardening entails minor chores, rather than a constant cycle of tasting and stroking, I seem to lose the will. I should face my disgusting, sagging shed—itself a classic example of the Mendelsonian law of false economies—purge its treasure trove of rotten sheep’s wool, rusted biscuit tins, desiccated bulbs, and horrific, child-painted mugs, which I lack the parental serenity to throw away. I ought to attempt winter pruning, but, lacking spatial awareness and the ability to follow technical (or, indeed, any) instructions, I can only gape dully at the diagrams and fail to identify basal clusters, central leaders, and lateral growths. Then, I either give up or, worse, go free-range, and then, each year, mourn my lack of fruit.
As for basic garden hygiene, my patience is thin. Cleaning plant pots with interestingly shaped brushes, disinfecting seed trays, scouring hand tools, plunging dismantled secateurs into oily sand: I can’t be bothered with any of it. I may tell myself it’s a sophisticated Darwinian-toughness test, that the fittest seedlings and worthiest perennials will survive. But, in truth, I’d rather have a bath with a seed catalogue, so that the doomed process of ordering, gloating, sowing, transplanting, potting, feeding, planting, tending, and then death can begin again.
Even my partial triumphs are depressing. My attempts to fashion leaf mold from the unattractively hardy viburnum inevitably results in a small patty of sodden plant gristle, which is forgotten until I slip on it and only then add to the compost bin. I always wrap my most vulnerable pots, the lemon-verbena and fig—late, amateurishly, but I do it. Now it’s time to unpeel them and assess which has done more damage: our puny winters; the snug, bathhouse-style environment I have created for the nymphomaniac local slugs; or the plants’ humiliation at having spent four months dressed in packaging materials. As Dolly Parton sang in “Coat of Many Colors”: if you’re clothed in a ragtag ensemble of moth-ravaged sweaters, bubble-wrap shreds, and ten metres of bargain-bought, secondhand agricultural fleece, people can be cruel.
Anyway, I’m busy. There are mysteriously persistent yet illegible pencil marks to scrub from an infinity of plant labels. Who else will sort my appalling glut of seed packets? Every year I flirt with alphabetization, and attempt to organize the packets chronologically, only, at the end, simply to pile them into heaps. And all the while I am longing for spring. I helicopter-parent my houseplants, polishing their leaves, constantly offering them drinks. I visit a local florist, which caters exclusively to window-box-owning city dwellers, and try to interest myself in the gothic nightmare of Ophiopogon planiscapus or in pointless pots of ivy and kalanchoes that not even a mother could love. If they sold vegetable seeds, I would be sunk. Instead, I furtively tend avocado stones and start considering kimchi—anything to give me a horticultural thrill, as long as I don’t have to garden.
Yet, within a week, everything has changed. Nature is waking up; there are snowdrops in the local park, a suggestion of green on the tips of my blueberry, cut-price raspberry canes on the high street. And, as gardeners everywhere start to develop that mad gleam, I feel it myself, that quickening, that pulsing desire. Sorry, I can’t quite make that deadline. Did you know I have a garden? It needs me. Let me at it.