THE MOST beautiful skies of the year occur in winter, as the gardener should frequently remind himself, because otherwise there is a tendency toward snappishness.
We are not going to change the nature of the American winter, which has the remarkable quality of zooming back and forth between 70 degrees and zero. The climate of England is steadier than ours, and sometimes the gardener, feeling a need for self-pity, will enjoy checking the temperatures of London.
It never gets warm there and the sun never shines. I have always regarded the climate of England as atrocious for gardeners simply because it is chilly and dim all year, and is somewhat like living in a florist's icebox. On the other hand, freezes below 20 degrees are rare, and with a bit of fiddling about they can manage a great many plants that like more heat than England gives them, but which will endure as long as they do not get too much cold.
I cannot imagine any gardener in his right mind moving to Seattle except under conditions of stress so severe as to be unimaginable. And yet, if one had to garden there, the pittosporums would be easier.
One must understand there is no gardening climate in the entire world that is not horrible, much of the time, from the gardener's point of view. People think sometimes of Seville or Isfahan, having seen colored pictures and wrongly supposing things grow well in such places. Ha.
Much of Ireland is, of course, mild, and the Atlantic coast of England, Wales and Scotland allows them to grow certain palms and tree ferns outdoors, so that if you go there in August you say, "My, this is a good place to be."
It is a terrible place to be. The winds are not to be believed and the bleakness of the winter, with the sound of wind never far off and the skies gray and dark, is a reasonable facsimile of hell.
Nogardeners in all the world surpass the English in the strength of their growls about weather, so there is no point thinking we would be happy if we had a sheltered place in Devon. The slowness with which the spring comes on in those islands is infuriating, and there is no advantage to marvelous daffodils that I can see if they are a month late, the result of hessian hung on poles to protect them, and if, when they are in full bloom, the sky is like concrete and you need a winter coat.
Now with us, who are given so much easier and luxuriant a climate, the stems are not so long, the flowers not so large, and our season (for daffodils, to give an example) entirely too short, if the temperature hits the 90s in April, as it easily does.
In exchange for the sorrow of seeing our early spring flowers steamed and stewed before our very eyes, we have skies like turquoise with clouds of peach blossom and the clematis in bud and the iris stalks beginning to swell and the birds all going made with lust in their hearts and one thinks there is no reason to keep his shirt on.
But we do (and I return to December) have the winter. Too few of us mulch with stable manure, too few of us plot the sites for our fig trees and pomegranates - we just stick them in anywhere and squeal painfully if they fail, saying it is not fair because we saw some growing with no trouble at all in Sussex.
Yes, and in Sussex they are protected with walls and mats and prayed over and replaced and all the rest of it, and even then they never fruit.
Why do Washington gardeners not grow more figs? How often I see a wall facing south, or the corner of a wooden fence facing southwest, with nothing of interest growing there. And yet such a fig as 'Celeste' would be happy, especially if mulched every winter with six inches of manure.
A young tree of 'Celeste' about knee height costs less than a couple of martinis and is better for any gardener. We say, "Oh, I don't know where to get one," when it turns out Lord and Taylor (you would not believe the dumb places gardeners go to look for plants, instead of to nurseries) never heard of that fig.
(I see 'Celeste' fig is $5.75 this year for an 18-24-inch plant at Bountiful Ridge Nurseries, Princess Anne, Md. 21853, and if you say that's more than two martinis, well, I lied.)
We cannot garden in a cloud of vague dreams. We must say, "Now what are the most desirable things to have in the garden as the seasons pass" and a fig tree might well be near the top of the list. Then we must say, "How exactly do we get one that does well in our climate," and we hear that 'Celeste' is good. So we take the pains to find out who grows and sells it, and we sit down in December, say, and write and order it - remembering always to put an address and a stamp on the envelope and sending a check, adding $2 for packing and shipping and knowing, if that is too much, they will refund the excess.
Then we get some peat moss during the winter, when we see it, not waiting till the hour we need it, and in March we plant our fig. That is how we accomplish things, instead of vaguely and vainly hoping the figs will drop on us from the moon.
Suppose you would not want a fig tree if you had one? Then there is little point buying one, I would think. There are other things. We should sit down, especially in winter, and think of all the things that would be fine in the garden, and when we see we do not have room enough for anything, to speak of, then we weigh the relative value we attach to all the different things we would like to have.
It is extremely simple. Painful, of course. And we cannot have everything, or even very much. That is part of not being a baby. But we can have, in whatever space we can manage, the things we like best, always keeping in mind we will be very old before we know enough to know what we like best. Here I am saving you all this time, mentioning this fig, and all the other things that crop up here. Saving you years.
New Year's is not all that distant. Surely it is time to straighten up and fly right.