In the Garden:
Upper South
December, 2006
Regional Report

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The beauty of simple things, such as an African violet, can bring profound pleasure to our lives.

A Gardener's Self-Appraisal

Am I the only one who seems to be getting more and more discombobulated by early 21st-century life? Holidays certainly don't help, although I've gotten them fairly streamlined. Don't get me wrong, I have a really good life, but the complexities of keeping all systems in semi-working order takes up just about all my time. Hanging out for the fun of it is only a vague, distant, blurry memory. And I do slightly remember creativity.

Even gardening doesn't seem to be quite as much fun. Of course, that may be because I've taken on about a zillion times more than is anywhere near logical. Plus, it is both my vocation and avocation. Yet without it, would anything else matter?

The reasons why we garden are as varied as the people who garden. Yet there are some common reasons why it's important to us. By reflecting on my own circumstance, I hope to define what matters the most to me, to stop trying to be "every gardener." And hopefully, my own reflections will either inspire or help to renew your own involvement with gardening. In this two-part series, I'm going to first look at some of the things that are and are not working for me in terms of my gardening efforts.

Vegetables and Fruits
My love of food -- really good, healthy food -- means that growing vegetables and fruits will always be high on my list. As long as I don't try to grow too many different things, just my favorites, albeit with a few experiments, it should go well. Of course, that new row of 30 raspberry plants might pose a weeding/harvesting problem, but that certainly should mean there'll be lots of friends dropping by next summer.

Annuals, Trees, Shrubs, and Grasses
Perennials, perhaps more than any other group of plants, have worn me out. Anyone who says they want to grow perennials because they're low maintenance hasn't grown them yet. Conversely, annuals are among my new best friends. They only need planting and, subsequently, being added to the compost pile. Plus, they offer a new palette every year. Now I just have to figure out what to do with the perennials that are still in the garden, as well as the new ones that I somehow seem to acquire every year.

Certainly, trees and shrubs require some work to prune and maintain, but not nearly as much as other ornamentals. Perhaps as one ages, there is something also to their longevity that is comforting. And I doubt that the textures and sounds of ornamental grasses will ever cease to comfort and delight me. By focusing on native species, I'm at least somewhat limiting my tendency to collect. Hopefully.

Exercise and Oxygen
Whenever I hear friends talking about going to the gym or working out on the treadmill, I try to resist the urge to invite them over to help me work in the garden. Gardening is serious exercise. It involves a lot of walking, as well as both upper and lower body strength training. Okay, one does have to sometimes deal with dominant arm soreness or lower back strain, but I'll trade that for fresh air and flowers any day, especially when it gets me away from a computer screen.

Wildlife
The diversity of creatures that I encounter while outdoors is a never-ending source of fascination (well, maybe not all wildlife, if one considers that raccoons killed my chickens). Observing and learning about the ecology of one's backyard really does provide perspective on our world as a whole. And, oh, those birds. From a hummingbird sipping the honeysuckle above my head as I weed to the mockingbird's multifaceted song from the tippy-top of the holly tree, the plaintive "mewing" of the sand hill cranes in spring and fall, and the constant stream of visitors to the feeders, birds are way more entertaining than any box office hit.

Orchids and Others
In spite of my tendency to forget to water, the houseplant collection is getting larger and larger, both in quantity and size. Although I have mixed feelings about some of the more mundane workhorses of the houseplant realm, the 15 or so phalaenopsis orchids acquired over the last few years still delight. It's an adventure to check for signs of new flower stalks every few days in the fall and winter, and then to enjoy the long-blooming flowers while the outdoors is frozen. That old flowering standby, the African violet, isn't so bad, either, for growing and blooming with little effort on my part.

Perhaps you can relate to some of these observations, and maybe they will prompt you to think about how taxing or pleasurable your own gardening efforts may be. I'll offer more on this topic in my next column.


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