Darwinian Gardening


Once more I had jumped the vernal gun: Annuals already lounging in the window boxes, hanging baskets dangling from shiny new hooks on the front porch, scrawny tomato plants cringing under towering tomato cages, symbols of my hope for another spring.

I'm always in a rush to put winter behind me. In the yard, new sprouts, like pieces of cut glass, have jumped along with me, nudging their way into the open air, freeing themselves of the cold ground, welcoming another new season.

And then, the death knell on the evening news: frost warnings tonight for the northern suburbs.

Panic stricken, I run to the front porch and remove all the hanging baskets, filling the front hall with ivy geranium shivering form the cold. I then run to the garden shed to begin my fight -- the garden knight armored in a green Burpee apron out to protect her fledgling crops. Out comes my main line of defense -- dozens of what used to be gallon milk jugs, their tops gone to recycling, their bottom halves recruited as weapons in my human battle against the indifferent elements.

I start systematically at one end of the yard, searching desperately for young buds, covering them carefully with my plastic protectors. Some have already grown too high for the jug bottoms and need to be swathed in white plastic garbage bags. As the sun begins to recede, I am still hard at work, racing to save the new buds from this final wintery blast. Behind me, the ghostly bags seem to snicker, and I even think I hear one ask, "What in the world are you doing?"

But it's only my neighbor, perched on the chair she uses when she wants to be neighborly, peering down at me over the fence that separates our yards. An ardent gardener herself, she knows exactly what I'm doing. What is she doing calmly sipping that steaming mug of coffee? Doesn't she realize that we're in a race against time?

"Come on over and have a cup of decaf. You look like you need to relax."

"Relax? How can I relax at a time like this?"

"A time like what?" she asks. "What is it that you're doing?"

Hasn't she heard about the impending frost? Doesn't she know that all of our plants are at risk?

She shakes her head, laughing, and then shrugs her shoulders. "I am a firm believer in Darwinian gardening," she says from her vantage point on the garden chair. "You know, survival of the fittest."

"But these baby buds need protection," I cry. "The little jewels are all exposed."

"I don't know," she says. "They look sort of sexual to me. They can take care of themselves."

Sexual? My little buds sexual? And I hear her laughing to herself -- or at me -- as she climbs down off the chair and finds a place in her backyard garden to curl up with two cups of coffee, giving herself permission to watch the green force rise and enjoy the approach of another frosty spring night.

The next morning, I rehang the baskets and then go out back to survey the damage. Tentatively, I remove the milk jugs, one at a time, hoping to find a survivor. Yes! And another one turns to face the sun! Every one has made it through the night. Once more we have foiled the powers that be, laughed in the face of the elements: not one casualty among the buds.

"Time for coffee now?" asks my neighbor, atop her garden perch once more.

"Yes," I cry triumphantly, "now that I know that everyone is safe. How did yours do?"

L "Most made it. Some succumbed," she sighs. "Que sera, sera."

"But you could have saved them if you had made the effort."

"I'd rather exert my efforts somewhere else. Besides, the ones that survive will be hardier, and the ones that didn't probably shouldn't have anyway."

Late that night, I sit in bed, pondering our gardening philosophies. Did nature mean for all those buds to die? Why warm the earth enough to allow them to break through, just to snatch them away before they get a chance to flower, to attract bees and butterflies, to brighten the human spirit?

And then I think of my neighbor's garden. It's a marvel: Tucked in her tiny city yard is a frenzy of color, of texture, of smell. Tiny bridges connect beautiful flower beds. Unexpected statuettes and birdhouses appear in the exactly perfect spots.

She weeds at will, thins her plants without so much as a wince. I suffer with every plant that sickens and dies, every one that doesn't make it back the next season, every one that I pull from the earth. I feel guilt at my omnipotence. She's at home with it. I do my own mulching, afraid a gardener might smother one of my emerging blooms. She orders truckloads to be dumped on bed after bed. My garden survives more on planning than on natural instinct.

And then it strikes me: we garden the way we parent. What my neighbor makes look easy, I work hard at. She has a flair, I guess you could say. In the garden, it's more than a green thumb; it's more like a talent -- she's an artist at work with seed and soil. Her garden -- and her children -- have thrived.

But so have mine. We just have different approaches. She's relaxed, but enthusiastic. "My fingers are itchy," she often cries. "Let's go after the poison ivy." And together we cover up and spend an entire afternoon attacking the villain that has insinuated itself between the fence posts as we laugh and talk, saying some of the best things we've ever said. Or I'll find bunches of daylilies on my porch, with a note: "They're taking over! Give them a good home." I never seem to have extra, or else I can't seem to let go of what I do have.

So whose philosophy is the right one? Is my garden more work than play? Am I being overprotective? By shielding my plants from frostbite, have I somehow been interfering in the great scheme of things? My husband, looking up from his magazine, assures me that my efforts have been worthwhile, but I still feel a little foolish remembering my panic, thinking of my neighbor's snicker and her laissez-faire attitude.

In the middle of my midnight musings, the phone rings. It's our son, calling from college. I hold my breath. "I'm fine, Mom," he says. "Everything's fine." And I begin to breathe again. "I just called to say thanks."

Thanks? Thanks for what?

He had spent the evening with his friends, he says, all of whom had been complaining about their parents. They had gone around the room, describing insult and injury, anger and injustice, until they had gotten to Matt.

"What did you say?" I ask.

"I'm a little embarrassed," he says, "but I told them that you guys are OK, even if you are a little overprotective. You let me make my own decisions, but then help me once I've made them. You don't push. I was thinking when everyone was complaining that you pay attention to me. Anyway," he says over the phone, "I just called to say thanks."

"Darwinian gardening," I murmur into the pillow after I replace the receiver on its cradle and pull the comforter up to my chin. "Darwinian parenting."

"What did you say?" asks my husband, curling up beside me.

"Nothing," I say, smiling. "Actually, everything. . . . Oh, wait! Did you hear the weather report? Any frost warnings tonight?"

E9 "It's too late," he says. "they're all on their own."

Barbara Kaplan Bass teaches writing at Towson State University.

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