Pamela Lord at the Garden Book Club said something awful:

"I've been thinking a lot about it," she said, "and am tired of hearing so much about maintenance-free gardens. If you aren't going to get out there and live with it -- including taking care of it -- then what's the point of gardening anyway?

"This year," the heresy continued, "I'm going to order fewer new things and concentrate on taking care of what I have. I've decided maintenance is almost everything."

She's right, of course. People who say disgusting things are often right.

In fact, however, it turned out (as Ms. Lord chatted along on the phone) she is acquiring a number of plants new to her, and I doubt she spends her winter weekends grubbing out briars and straightening fences, for all her high and mighty talk.

Some years ago I resolved nobody would ever work in my garden but me, though of course my splendid companion goes out there occasionally to pull up a clematis or two, and fills a lot more body bags with weeds than I do. Because we have no hired help, and because I am sloppy by nature, the garden usually looks terrible, except when the Spirit enters and I dash about for four days in a manic fit to straighten things up. Then the garden looks fairly okay for a week.

I attribute this state of things to a virtue I happen to possess (and not to the clear fact I am lazier than most people), which is a fondness for digging. The more you dig, the greater mess you make, and if you consider digging the Great Good Occupation of Adam's Sons, of course you have to budget your time. Which means you dump everything on the walk, to tend to that pile of pruned stems from the grapes "later."

You can be sure the phone will ring or a hurricane will come up or it will be time to do something else urgently, and the prunings stay where you dump them. On later excursions into the garden, a good many of these can be kicked under a yew or otherwise semidisposed of, and the dogs are good at picking some of them up and wandering off.

You don't dig far, in this capital, without encountering massive roots. I never knew such a place for tree roots, and as for pokeweed, nowhere else in the world do pokeweeds grow so quickly or make roots so enormous. I have two hatchets and two axes. It's dirty work but somebody has to do it, as I say before plopping down with a grunt after an exhausting 40-minute session.

Some people clearly are better at "maintenance" in their gardens than others. The same ones, probably, that keep files of birthdays and jokes for all occasions and have neat desks.

The world in general admires them and I in general stand in awe of them. In moments of transient bitterness and sarcasm, I say of course they are neat, since they haven't got anything to be messy about. The truth, however, is simply that they are better organized than I. They know that sooner or later the grape branches are going to have to be picked up (it takes them literally years to rot away) and cut up and hauled out to the trash, and it's more efficient to do it promptly than to do it "later."

They are right, which makes the whole thing more annoying.

I read an anecdote about some Lady Rothschild, a woman with a flawless garden where nothing was ever undone that ought to have been done, and she was visiting another garden in the fall. There were some brilliantly colored leaves on the grass paths, and Lady R. exclaimed over them.

"How gorgeous. I suppose you import them?"

She had never seen a stray leaf on the paths at her own place.

We need not go as far as the Rothschild garden, of course, but some of us -- certainly I -- could do better in the way of general maintenance. We must try.