The Accidental Gardener
I have an aversion to gardening – not gardens – that’s pretty much a lifelong experience, which is unusual due to the fact that I grew up in a place informally know as “The Gardens”.
By Tom McDermott
I have an aversion to gardening – not gardens – that’s pretty much a lifelong experience, which is unusual due to the fact that I grew up in a place informally know as “The Gardens”. Forest Hills Gardens, to be exact.
One of my earliest jobs was mowing my grandfather’s sloping lawn and trimming the hedges. My grandfather, like all self-made men, was a fierce worker, indoors and out. In hindsight, I’m sure that he was looking for signs of the same stouthearted traits in me. But, in this, I fear he was disappointed, for, while I had a high regard for money and the boyish treasures it could procure – baseball cards, comic books, bicycle accessories, candy, and sodas – I was not particularly drawn to manual labor at an early age; nor, to be honest, at any other age.
That said, I developed a strong appreciation for the open greens, famously laid out in FHG by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. There was Greenway Terrace, culminating in Flagpole Park, and Hawthorne Park, both of which warned youths that there was NO BALL PLAYING, in order to preserve the lawns.
Those signs, naturally, were like a red cape to a bull for me and my friends who were in need of a baseball field, gridiron, or public lawn tennis court. It pains me now to admit that we also took great pleasure in tormenting Bill, the uniformed park steward, by leaving one place only to set up our game in another, then another, and so on.
In this way, I learned to appreciate hedges that became our own Green Monsters, where we aimed home runs. Two bushes, more or less equally aligned served at goal markers, and elm (before the blight) and oak or maple trunks became goalposts. But, Bill never seemed to be amused by our green thumbs, not to mention our sneakers, which wore out the lawns in a variety of neat designs.
Much later in life, having landed upon the shores of southern California, I was re-introduced to gardening and landscaping by my housemate, whose ulterior motive may have had more to do with making the rent than convincing me of the spiritual and physical benefits of labor.
On one of my first assignments, left alone to run a rotor-tiller, I successfully cut the PVC piping Eric, my housemate, had installed only a few weeks before. Thereafter, I did a lot more raking, digging – with shovels, watering, and carrying loads of debris to the old blue Chevy truck. Meanwhile, I did have a chance to greatly admire the many new forms of greenery and flowers in a place where all one had to do was drop a few seeds in the ground and wait, while the spring fog and afternoon sun, plus a touch of water did the rest. Unfortunately, I do not recall any of the names of those plants, except for nasturtiums, which grew along the brook in the canyon where we lived.
Later, I leveraged that valuable experience into a job with the City of Laguna Beach, where I learned to cut many kinds of grasses and weeds down to make fire breaks in the hills above the town. Of course, that was the very opposite of gardening, since our goal was to destroy plants – and quite a few rattlesnakes as well. Still, I did learn quite a bit from my co-workers, all of whom, except me, had apparently spent some time in Orange County “work camps” for a variety of minor transgressions, some of which had to do with cultivating and planting certain exotic species of plants.
In my life as a Rye homeowner, I relegated myself to a minimal amount of tree pruning, mowing, raking, and, under much duress, weeding. At least I did so until we could afford the first of many landscape professionals. Before them, the heavier load of yard work was performed by my spouse, whose mother was also a prodigious and talented gardener.
In our current home, my green chores were curtailed by friendly agreement with the governing association after I chopped the main watering line with a shiny Smith & Hawken spade. On one try!
I remain an admirer of gardeners and gardening, and enjoy reading about both. In my office, within reach, are Bunny Williams’ “On Garden Style”, Rosemary Verey’s “The American Man’s Garden”, and Dan Kiley’s “Complete Works”.
I’ve discovered that it’s best for everyone if I do my green work from a comfortable lawn chair or porch rocker, using only my fingers as tools to turn the pages, the only “watering” going on is when I reach for a sip of my refreshing drink, with a touch of lime, olive, or mint.