Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Yard & Garden Planning

A Gentlewoman's Guide to Pottering

by Robin Chotzinoff

June is the season of excellent mental health. As a gardener, I go around feeling good. Of course, I wouldn't recognize this feeling if I had not felt bad, which is what winter is for. Why? It comes down to pottering.

I would like to define "potter" here, but my dictionary is incomplete. I find "putter," which sounds similar, but isn't. Puttering is done, with quiet desperation, by a Fortune 500 executive who has had to retire at the age of 67.5. It involves unsticking bureau drawers and thinning shrubbery. I find "patter," a type of conversation akin to pottering, satisfying, yet outwardly pointless. The next book on my shelf is The Wind in the Willows, which offers this enlightening thought: "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply "messing about?"

Messing about! Is that it? No, I mean pottering, simply because, well, maybe a pot is involved -- if it's not broken -- and I remember to water its contents. In any case, while pottering with a hypothetical pot of hypothetical salmon-pink geraniums that I saw a picture of in a magazine years ago and have always wanted, a bloodthirsty-looking bird of prey may sail low over my head, forcing me to look up and notice a much-gnarled tree stump that could be rotten enough on the inside to grow ivy in, or, if not, might make a comfy but damp chair. And whoa! Bright red bugs! You see how the brain of a potterer works. Ineffectively, disjointedly, contentedly.

In fact, I often wonder, because a potterer has hours of time to do that, whether potterers in frost-free climates are happy most of the time, or whether pottering, to be effective, must be periodically withheld. For me, for example, there is no such thing as winter pottering. The inside of a house is ill-suited to contemplative futzing. Everything is always right where you put it, even if you don't remember where that is. Some people use the "womanly arts" as a winter substitute, so I've made various pathetic endeavors, baking my own Saltines, stabbing cloves into oranges, sewing lopsided clothing for symmetrical children.

But all that is over now! Here is my tentative pottering schedule for the summer ahead. Try some of my pottering projects yourself. Or don't! Eat a sandwich! Yank a weed! Go see if your neighbor has any rabbit poop she wants to get rid of! Meanwhile, I'll:

* Wander around deadheading flowers. Gradually collect seed in the bib of my overalls. Eventually save the seed, hopelessly commingled, in a twist of paper. Next spring, I'll start a flat of Mystery Seed.

* Plan a raised-bed empire. Find some rotten lumber and cobble it into a frame. Jump-start the rusting pickup and drive to the nursery for topsoil. Make the acquaintance of a St. Bernard who seems to be in charge. Come home with truckload of dirt, just in time for dinner.

* Notice that hollyhocks from two years ago have suddenly appeared. Go find a lawn chair to place for optimum viewing. Discover that all lawn chairs are rump-sprung. Empty truck of topsoil (see above), and go to K-Mart for new chair. See distressed but cheap rosebushes, ill-suited for climate and altitude, but still....

* Wake from dream about pampas grass. Consider recreating the windswept pampas in barren meadow. Do Internet search for pampas-grass growing conditions. Watch dirt from fingers sift into keyboard. Get sidetracked by mail-order gaucho pants. Go outside, find small daughters, measure them for same. Get sidetracked again by sudden ripeness of little green beans. Discuss the wonders of growing food, especially BIG food, as "little" green beans are all six inches long. See especially: pumpkins. Too late to win prize at county fair? Rush inside for Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy, in which young boy grows enormous pumpkin by slicing open its vine and allowing it to soak up milk from a pan. Could this work?

Ah, summer.

Robin Chotzinoff is the author of People with Dirty Hands (Harcourt Brace, 1997).

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