How to annoy people with red geraniums and hot pink petunias

We moved to a house specifically so that we could garden. I have been a lifelong gardener, except for the four years I spent in a downtown loft where the “common garden” was in the sunbaked parking area. I know urban gardens are important, and I salute all those New Yorkers who can love their community garden and window boxes. But I found a yard, and when I found it, I fell in love, and the honeymoon has not gone away. I stop work at a reasonable time every day and go out there to play in dirt. When my colleagues annoy me, I feed things into the chipper shredder. It feels like you are getting real work done. After 10 years of working all day, every day for tenure, it’s the least I can do for myself.

As it turns out, just like every pastime, there are people out there ready to to tell you that you are doing it wrong and you’re not good enough to be in their club. Surfing around the garden blogs, I’m looking for photos and inspiration, and well, fun. And I find a great deal of both, but I also find an unsavory classicism and snobbery. Here’s an entry on at the appropriately named “Garden Rant” blog on the Dark Side of Grocery Gardening. This line is particularly telling:

These gardeners give little or no thought to overall vegetable garden design. Rows rule! They fail to consider how they will navigate narrow pathways or reach into the center of large beds for maintenance, reinforcing their excuse to avoid maintenance altogether. Everything is low and flat to the ground. Even the indeterminate tomatoes are horizontal because they failed to be contained by the two-foot-tall sorry excuse for tomato cages these gardeners bought at Wal-Mart.

Ho boy. Where to begin, right?

Basic good neighborliness and good sense suggest that you show some care in your front yard and try to make things look as nice as you can manage. But you know, there’s just a point when things start looking a little sad in a vegetable garden. They are annuals, and they get tired before they stop bearing.

But the reference to Wal-Mart? Hello, classism! Only those who can afford the finest stuff need apply to the home-grown food “movement”, thank you. You need the $20 a pop plant supports from the Heritage Plant-y Place online.

The comments are also telling: utter surprise that anybody would resent the tone, etc, arguing it’s all a parody, yada. And then the comments about the red geranium that somebody’s neighbor overuses a bit because they can divide it themselves. The responses to that comment hit the nail on the head: instead of using what you have–thrift–you have to order tastefully native plants from a place like Annie’s Annuals for $8 to $12 a pop to be a part of the club here. (Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Annie’s Annuals and their service is great and the plants are To Die For. But it’s not a cheap gardening outlet.)

My grandmother’s red geraniums, Pepto-Bismol pink petunias, and sun-yellow Missouri primroses gave her tremendous pleasure. By all standards of today’s gardens, they are gauche. And I yet I remember them quite fondly.

There are always people ready to “police” pastimes–again, with the terminal seriousness of a social movement like local food production. The fact that this Garden Rant writer argues that sloppy gardeners promote pests and plant diseases is the same-old rhetorical device we always see: find a collective rationale for my positions (no matter how specious it probably is), and then preach on, telling other people how to live and work. Give me actual data on how many pests and disease are spread by gardeners who shop at Wal-Mart, and I’ll defer. Until then, you’re just another preacher/Amway salesman with a hobbyhorse you’re too egotistical to keep to yourself.

I may plant some pink petunias just to annoy these people.

The truth as I see it: You can live by the rules and do everything “right”: read the gardening guides, wait a year before planting anything, studiously avoid the “plunk and plant” sin, etc etc–and you are still going to have to keep moving plants, pulling them out, etc etc. Because unless you have nothing to do besides watch where the sun hits your yard, your sun map will probably be wrong. Or a storm will come and split the tree which provided a huge amount of shade, and that change will alter the entire sun path across the yard–even after you carefully did the superior thing and planned and planned.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the peril of planning as an exercise than the garden, iow. You try and you try, and mostly, it delights you despite not really doing much anything what you planned for it to do other than grow and bloom.

This is my fourth big garden. My second in southern California. In my experience, every garden teaches you to how to garden it–not the other way around; you don’t impress your will upon it. Things will grow or they won’t, as they see fit. Just because the books and the garden police tell you what plants work in your zone and which ones don’t doesn’t get you all that far. Yep, as a general rule, you can’t put columbines into the baking California sun. Go with poppies. Yeah? Well, I’ve never gotten a single poppy to grow in southern California. Not one. Not in sun. Not in filtered shade. Not one. I kill them faster than I kill goldfish. So much for what I ought to be doing.

There are only two variables that really come into play with gardening, as with most things: money and time. You have those constraints, and the garden reflects them. But in all of it–just like everything else–the point is to have a good time, get some exercise, and get yourself someplace to sit outside where you can ignore the phone ringing inside and you can think about something other than yourself. You want to spend 8 hours a day and 30 percent of your income? Great? You want to spend an hour every weekend and a few dollars? That’s the way life is. Just because gardening is important to you doesn’t make it objectively important, or that you get to act like red geraniums mean a damn thing in the greater scheme of the world.

Fortunately my neighbors are not lawn police or garden police. There’s a very cool diversity of things going on in front lawns. My neighbors on both sides have small children, so their lawns are nice to play on. Down the way, a woman has gone to xeriscaping.

My lawn needs some water, of course, to provide grist for the judgers to judge.