A Garden of Earthly -- uh, Pretty Goods


You can tell it's spring.

The swallows have returned to Capistrano, the buzzards are back in Hinckley, Ohio, and gardening offers are clogging my mailbox.

Just last week, I received an offer to join the Organic Gardening Book Club, an advertisement for bulbs and perennials from an outfit in Michigan, and an offer for books on landscaping and flower selection.

Some of the plants shown in these brochures look as if they were created by Dr. Frankenstein.

One advertised a tomato-potato plant. For only $7.99, you get a plant that grows tomatoes from its stems and sprouts spuds from its roots. And for $19.99, there's the tree that grows five different varieties of apples.

It took these flower peddlers a while to find me. Although I bought the townhouse six years ago, they didn't seem to notice until this year.

I think it's my husband's fault. He was convinced he was going to win the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, so every time Ed McMahon sent him a notice saying he was a contest finalist, my husband subscribed to another magazine. (He figured it would help his chances.)

Well, he didn't win, and now our coffee table has almost as many magazines as the reading room of the Annapolis library. We've got Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Road and Track, Automobile, Car and Driver, Artist, Military History, PC, Organic Gardening and Flower and Garden.

I guess ordering those last two is how they caught me. I'm sure my name is now on some mailing list and they'll be sending me offers for spring bulbs long after I've been sent to a nursing home.

At first, I didn't mind the brochures. Last year, I developed some sort of nesting instinct, and I yearned to turn our back yard into a lush, green hideaway.

Never mind that our back yard is about as wide as the median strip down Route 2 and about as bare.

Still, I had visions of trickling fountains and cool pools with goldfish and water lilies. I dreamed that we'd have so many plants and flowers that you'd need a machete and a bloodhound to find us.

Last year, we started the conversion. We built a brick patio, put up rose trellises and planted four rose bushes and two grape vines. Then the season was over.

Not much of a start, but I figured we'd do better this year. All winter I planned for the spring planting. I bought gardening catalogs and looked enviously at pictures of slender women in wispy, white dresses sipping iced tea in ivy-covered grottoes.

By February, I was so absorbed in my new passion that I couldn't pass a gardening magazine without buying it. The headlines ignited my imagination: "The Joys of the Oriental Eggplant," or "Chiles! From Mild to Wild."

I spent hours copying the names of plants and looking them up in a gardening book. I learned all kinds of important things, such as that Maryland is in agriculture Zone 7. That means we can grow dogwoods, but not pineapples.

One day last month, I borrowed a couple of plant catalogs from friends, poured over the pictures, compared prices and made my selection.

Then I called up two outfits and ordered $200 worth of plants intended for a perennial flower bed of blues and pinks. My purchase included delphiniums, balloon flowers, Canterbury bells, phlox, lavender and day lilies. Along with hollyhocks, a lilac bush and a butterfly bush, this was to be a haven for butterflies and humming birds.

Then I spent another $30 on a book to tell me how to kill pests without using chemicals that cause the fish in Chesapeake Bay to mutate.

When the book arrived, it came with a guide to perennials. I learned that the delphiniums I had ordered have a life span only slightly longer than that of a house fly.

So much for my studying up on which flowers to grow.

I think it was about then that the dream of a lush garden began to fade. I abandoned my plan to create a flower bed border of rocks when I saw the local garden center was charging 25 cents a pound for run-of-the mill limestone.

I mean, it's bad enough they charge for cow manure. Had I known about this racket when I was growing up on a farm in Virginia, I could have sold enough limestone and manure to pay my college tuition.

Now that spring is finally here, the robins are pulling worms out of my freshly made flower beds, and I caught a crow carrying off some mulch. The grass needs mowing and I'm already wondering whether the broccoli is getting enough water.

A week ago, I was standing in the checkout line at the Giant and I picked up a gardening magazine from the rack. I thumbed through it and put it back. This was the first gardening magazine I'd passed up buying in three months.

It's not that I'm sick of it all already. I still marvel that the thin, dry-looking twigs of my clematis are starting to sprout green leaves and that the peony the dog pulled up one day last summer is pushing a red shoot through the grass.

Let's just say that I've lowered my expectations. I'm no longer envisioning myself sipping tea in a green grotto.

Now I see myself on my hands and knees pulling up weeds under a hot August sun.

Liz Atwood is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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