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Space Odyssey

How I hated it.

I asked myself then what I have asked myself since: Why do all this? Why work so hard to make a garden at all? The activity so often can seem all deferring and no gratification. Time, such a welcome presence in a mature garden, can seem an uncompromising enemy when you begin. Why plant an object that would be far more fun to throw over the house? But as the bulbs were relaid in the ground, not to be seen again until after a long deep winter, my grandmother was planting something else. Tucked into my hostility, the beginnings of a passion.

There are many theories as to where this particular passion comes from. The longing to return to Eden is one, although Eden was lower maintenance.

A small patio under an old wisteria
A small patio under an old wisteria
A small patio under an old wisteria offers privacy in the far corner of the author's yard. (Tom Toles)

I have done a fair bit of wood-working, which is similar in that many small tasks must be labored over, and many fingers wounded before beauty emerges, if it ever does. But there is a difference as well. When woodworking is finished, patina is the only dividend one can expect in the future. Damage is equally likely.

But a garden, tended, only gets better. All its living components are busy, working for you. You set in motion a hundred or a thousand individual artists, wayward at times, yet often, in their creeping, reaching, draping and layering, producing beauty you couldn't foresee.

And perhaps gardening is also a metaphor. People like to enlarge the significance of their hobby by describing how it reflects a parallel dimension of life. Gardening could be a metaphor for, say, politics, this being Washington and I being a political cartoonist. A stretch? Rent "Being There."

As an aesthetic exercise, gardening is very physical, involving the pursuit of beauty, the rhythm of form and engaging with one's hands and body in a creative and somewhat unpredictable process. A woman friend, also a cartoonist and also a gardener, once asked me what things I genuinely enjoyed. I mentioned gardening. And dancing. And sex. "Those are all the same thing," she said.

Perhaps. All of these activities can suffer for lack of space, and here I was, transplanted so to speak, into a container far smaller than I was used to.

I had read plenty of books on the pleasures and strategies of small-space gardening. It had always seemed like a quaint and cozy challenge. Building a ship in a bottle. There were rules! I knew them!

• Take an inventory of existing assets before you begin. Always good advice. And, due to the size of this space, it wouldn't take long. There was a persimmon tree. Not an especially beautiful thing, and pretty much in the exact center of what space there was, sporting lower branches preventing all movement save creeping about on all fours. But it was a tree, the only real one back there, and the species was an intriguing oddity, even for D.C.

• Tour the grounds, to look for opportunities. There were some azaleas. What colors? "Assorted," I was told. Uh-oh. A car dealer's tie rack is assorted. What else? A warmer climate. This was something new. August 2003 was 97 degrees every single day. Nothing moved but the flies. An opportunity to plant some things that wouldn't grow in Buffalo. Some things that might grow on Venus. A Venus' flytrap.

• Open up pleasing vistas, and screen out undesirable ones. Let's see. Utility pole. Cell tower. Plywood window treatment. Diagonal PVC vent pipe. Which of these counted as a pleasing vista? And at my feet a yawning hole of basement steps that had all the visual appeal of a robbed grave.

• Draw your plans. This I thought I ought to be able to do. Everything I drew, however, ran straight into the obstacles the yard presented. Whoops! The garage is there! No! That's the alley! Watch your head under that tree! Your patio just fell down the basement stairs!

It all seemed pretty bleak. And hot. Did I mention that it was 97 degrees every day? And everyone knows how being really hot helps almost every problem. So what did I do? What everyone else does in such circumstances. I sat down.


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