And then I spied it, in the iris bed: a flower I had never seen, in my many long years of gardening. It was remarkable: the tiniest, most delicate lavender blossom atop a spiky, sage-colored frond. What a find!
A single tiny blossom had fallen from the shrub and perfectly impaled itself upon an iris leaf. So much for my new flower.
I took another sip of coffee and moved on, reflecting on my first non-masterly gardening moment of the new growing season. So soon, I thought; we’re barely underway.
Oh, I know: A lot of you never screw up. Many, many gardeners know exactly what they’re doing out there in the dirt. And if they don’t, you’ll never hear about it. The real experts play it close to the vest, never letting you see the stunted fruit tree or the showy Zone 8 perennial about to be made annual by a cold, crisp Zone 5 night.
There was a time when I aspired to be like you. I bought a copy of Sunset’s Western Garden Book, the bible of smart gardeners in my region, and its well-thumbed pages attest that I use it. I designed a drip irrigation system and built my own coldframe. I even — I am not kidding — studied to be a Colorado Master Gardener.
Yet I am not, in truth and by any reasonable measure, a master gardener. And as I edge into my golden gardening years, I’ve got to say that you experts make people like me feel, well …. lonely.
Am I the only tiller of the soil, I wonder, who has ever tried to train poison ivy – such a pretty vine, really – up a trellis? Am I the only first-fruiting-season homeowner who ever wandered out in the yard to gape at the fuzzy orange fruit on her self-identified crabapple tree? (Dumbstruck and ever-resistant to epiphany, I immediately seized the least likely – but most exciting — scenario: “There are apricots growing on my crabapple tree!’’)
An Internet search for gardening gaffes was sorely disappointing. Even An Alaska Gardener’s Winter Checklist, co-authored by a Fairbanks extension agent, turned out to be serious. I was beginning to wonder if gardeners weren’t a rather tightly puckered lot when finally – after securing a promise of anonymity – some friends began confessing their own faux pas.
One admitted to unwittingly loosing a plague of woody, fast-spreading Italian oregano, which, she observed, “is to dirt what mold is to cheese.”
“I’m still digging out the stuff three years later,’’ she said, “but it surrounded my tomatoes this fall, and the neighbor’s peonies don’t stand a chance.’’
Another recalled his father’s helpful efforts to improve his mother’s glorious 3-by-30 bed of marigolds.
“When my mom started wondering why they were dying, my dad informed her that it couldn’t be that they were being choked by weeds, since he’d dusted them with weed-killer,’’ he said. “Wherein my mom informed him that marigolds belonged to the family of plants the weed-killer targeted.’’
My favorite tale, though, was a friend’s account of a mortifying incident resulting from overzealous soil aeration.
“I do all my gardening in containers, and a couple of years ago, near the end of the season, I decided the soil needed aerating,’’ she explained. “A bamboo skewer seemed like a good implement.
“So there I am, poking lots of tiny holes in the pots, and somehow I missed and the skewer rammed into my nose, coming perilously close to my brain. I haven’t aerated the pots since.’’
Not to be unkind, but there is something about my friend’s near-lobotomy that cheers me. These are gardeners of my tribe, people who stand firmly behind the motto: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’’
Wholly energized and marginally competent, each spring we hoist our banners and charge full-bore into the teeth of the garden. And later, take laughing stock of where we failed and where we triumphed — in spite of ourselves.
And so, I say: Let the gardening games begin.