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Mary McGrory

Standing My Ground

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, September 1, 2002; Page B07

I know my annual garden report is late. Several of you have kindly inquired why, and I hope you will not regret it. Regular readers are familiar with my struggles to reach accord with nature -- squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks and, yes, deer. This year it isn't just nature. It's man, too, in the form of a new and implacable board in my condo.

The season started in a familiar way. Of the hundred bulbs my friend Jo and I planted last year, maybe 15 survived. In past years, the squirrels whimsically planted them elsewhere, such as so far down the hill that only my upstairs neighbors could see them. But this year, they must have had a banquet -- an "all the bulbs you can eat" gala.

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The spring also brought the news that the board meant to evict me from my little L-shaped Eden at the back of my building and to take it over. The board had every right. It's common property, and the fact that I had brought it from something like a slag heap to a semblance of a garden was no nevermind to the board and the new property manager who came with it. My Aunt Kate had combed the hills of New Hampshire for ferns, then wrapped them in damp newspapers and sent them air mail. I had planted them in leaf mold purloined with permission from my next-door neighbors, a succession of Indian ambassadors with whom I got along famously, even during the Cold War, when Kissinger was counseling coolness.

Like all gardeners, I am extremely emotional about my bit of ground. Every edict advising "Work to begin immediately" made me whimper. I dreaded the bulldozers. Would they flatten the holly I planted while regrouping after a traumatic lunch with Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, who told my anti-war pals -- Sam Brown, David Mixner and John O'Sullivan -- that if they went on protesting, the government would build more jails with higher and wider walls? And what about the ever-growing ex-Christmas tree that was set into a steep slope in defiance of gravity by Post editor Bill Hamilton and George Stephanopoulos, back when he was a congressional aide taking lip from members and before he became rich and famous?

So I did what any sensible, distraught gardener would do. I called up the crack condo lawyer, Benny Kass. He had a word or two with the authorities, and clemency has been granted: I am allowed a say in what is to be.

But days after detente was reached, nature struck again. The deer came back. Five years ago they staged a series of raids that left me with scorched earth. They ate my orange phlox down to the roots and laid waste to the orange astilbe. I sought and received much advice. Most striking was a gallant offer by Bill Clinton's first national security adviser, Tony Lake, to go by the zoo and pick up lion dung, which deer detest. He found out, unfortunately, that we had signed a global pact to preserve everything about lions, including their excrement, beyond reach. Such a pity George W. Bush was not in charge. He hates international treaties and would definitely have refused to sign such a document -- he might have campaigned against it, as he does against the International Criminal Court.

Alas. I'm back to tying deterrent Irish Spring soap bars on every branch.

I have had lots of help over the years in my horticultural efforts, and much social life. People, particularly those with strong backs, would come on Sunday to do a little light farm work and stay for supper. I have endured criticism for my labor policies -- baseless charges of forced labor and cracks about Cesar Chavez. But if you plant the basil and you get to eat the pesto sauce at harvest time, John Sweeney will not take your case. The tendency to carp was especially notable in a relative, my cousin Brian McGrory of the Boston Globe, who, like me, is a professional carper, a newspaper columnist. He brought his complaints and his dog, Harry, who jumped in every hole we dug and napped in what he thought were satin sheets, the impatiens bed. Impatiens, the last hope of the ungifted gardener. In this summer of drought, they were the only color on the scene. So when the deer came, they hit the impatiens first, nibbling off the blossoms. I caught one of them red-handed on a recent Sunday morning. She was at the Christmas tree, gnawing on a branch. I tapped on the window to get her attention. She raised her head and gave me a doe-eyed gaze. Her look said plainly, "Oh, dear, is this private property? I thought it was still parkland. I'm so sorry."

Am I downhearted after that double whammy? No, I'm a gardener, and we live on hope for better times. Come spring, we'll be in the crowd at Johnson's Flower & Garden Centers in the stampede for seedlings, certain that a more beautiful and fragrant season is just around the corner.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company