THE CHINESE send ideological deviants to farms for rehabilitation. I do not question their wisdom, but I would like to point out that if agriculture is chastening, horticulture is utterly humiliating and I am suggesting that the garden plot outside my windows is a place to bring low the haughtiest spirit.
Like many would-be Washington gardeners, I storm Johnson's Flower Center in the spring. I have the avid, rapt look we all wear when we are bearing off the ageratum, the dianthus, the blue aster ("blooms all summer"). We see the garden in its glory, the stunning bouquet on the coffee table. We hear the exclamations of the guests, our own modest response -- "home-grown."
Now, of course, it is August and ashes-in- the-mouth time. The rosebush produced a single bud, which took one look around and apparently committed suicide. The dianthus, after a puny bloom or two, fainted. The marigolds have gone entirely to leaf. I will never know if the asters were blue.
And why, you may ask, do I burden you with this account of defeat and devastation? It is because of the impatiens, which alone has rescued me from floral Dunkirk.
I cannot say enough for this most slanderously misnamed flower. It is the St. Bernard of the doomed gardener. If it were a person, I could not say who it would be. No human I know embodies so many virtues: cheerfulness, endurance, generosity, adaptability, understanding. I look out my window and I see flowers. At the entrance of my apartment house, we have lovely, rioting mounds of red and white. I am -- please do not snicker -- the chairman of my condo garden committee. The impatiens I credit with saving me from impeachment. People who are spared the sight of my failures in the back, stop me in the hallways to praise my green thumb.
The impatiens is not like the petulant petunia, which demands pinching and gives you sticky fingers in return. The impatiens does like a bit of water, but in the case of lack, it will not, like the vindictive ageratum, turn brown. It understands that you forgot, and begins smiling at the first drop. .
As if all that were not enough, the impatiens thoughtfully seeds itself, springing up in areas otherwise given over to blight, to the bugs and slugs which make a McDonald's of the marigold bed.
Birds, I regret to say, are different. They have learned nothing from the impatiens.
It all goes back to a time when I wrote about a mockingbird, who bullied me into going out in a blizzard to buy raisins. It brought forth considerable response, from readers who were emotionally involved with mockingbirds, hooked on their charm and cheekiness. One correspondent reported at considerable length about "Casper and Bonjour" who had practically gotten credit cards from him. But came also a stern communication from a retired foreign service officer, who adjured me to cut off the raisins during the summer months. He drew an analogy to welfare.
I obeyed, slashing the raisin budget to zero once the ground was soft. The mockingbird was, like other species, not grateful for my attempts to improve his character. He merely patronized another restaurant, the Maxime's, which is run by my neighbor upstairs.
What I get instead of the flutter of wings is the hulls of the sunflower seeds which the male cardinal spits down on my patio as he feasts. I have told my neighbor that he is corrupting the birds, but every Saturday I see him struggling in with armfuls of delicacies for his guests.
I have suggested that he is particularly contributing to the delinquency of the male cardinal, who is rotten anyway. The male cardinal treats his wife in a manner that should make her the symbol of the ERA. Her worthless mate is, I should note, the official bird of seven states, which just goes to show you that the earnest university dons who recently made a study of the effects of beauty, should have started -- and ended -- their researches in the cardinal's nest.
The male cardinal, in all his gorgeousness, gorges until he is staggering, but let the Mrs. so much as flutter by, and he rounds on her in a flood of abusive squawks. She retreats to the nearest bush, mildly chirping until she has to carry him home.
My neighbor said defensively, "Do you think think they're like some parents who never take the same plane, out of consideration for the children? "
I am not sure whether this was male solidarity speaking or simply a reflection of the fact that my neighbor who works for the FAA is soft on anything that flies.
But I renew my invitation to Peking. Their dissidents might not get to compete in the Chelsea Flower Show, but they would learn a lot about the good and bad elements that present themselves daily to people who try to cultivate their gardens. Mary McGrory's column appears three times a week in The Post.