The capital drought has blighted gardens. It has also brought a certain stealthy comfort to gardeners without blooms. We whose gardens always look drought-stricken have loads of company.
Now when I meet a proprietor of a plot usually worthy of Williamsburg, I can look her right in the eye. I no longer cringe at the prospect of hearing her whine about trying to stop the black-eyed Susans from taking over the backyard. "Like weeds," she would simper to me, who is down on her hands and knees just begging them to survive. But when she inquires about my horticultural health these days, I just shrug and sigh and look up. She does the same, my sister at last.
The other night I went to a gathering where a beautifully dressed guest from Maryland held forth on the question of whether she should turn in her neighbor to the water police. No, she had not seen her neighbor's sprinkler running full force, but she knew what was going on. She needed only to look at her neighbor's garden, a vulgar display of abundance and color surrounded by suspiciously green grass, and then back to her own--with its withered stalks and lawn the consistency of shredded wheat--to know the story.
I said nothing, but I was thinking about revenge on her obviously unscrupulous neighbor. I could imagine it would go beyond the poisoned pet or the sabotaged grill to something like Kosovo-style reprisals.
The reason people are so emotional about their lawns and gardens is easy to understand. Yeats, as usual, said it best: "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams." It is not just the time that goes into horticulture, or the sweat and the aching muscles. A vision strikes and although it should die in early spring, it does not. The blooming bulbs put on a brave show to humor us and keep us hooked. Daffodils and tulips, which have their own little bubbles, can break through ground that more temperamental plants find so inhospitable.
For about three weeks, I can talk about my garden without whimpering. But when the heat comes--not this year's savage, breath-draining kind but Washington's usual dog days--and I have bought enough plants to send the nursery owner's son to Harvard, nature puts me in my place once again.
Defections and disappearances abound. The New Guinea impatiens, all dark leaves and bright flowers, suddenly check out. In my so-called perennial bed, the gaillardia succumb to some mysterious wasting disease. One week, they are thriving; the next, they look as if they have seen "The Blair Witch Project" once too often or are trying out for the "La Traviata" look-alike contest: Their garish and unwholesome petals mock me over the blanched and withered leaves.
My garden blooms in ironies. Right beside the blighted gaillardia are the elephantine leaves of an unwelcome rhubarb that I have tried for years to uproot. You may be sick of the comeback-kid analogy, but it applies.
We gardeners are deeply instructed in the fragility of dreams and the unfairness of life. I watched the decline around me during the recent fuss over the Iowa straw poll--the political equivalent of the preseason game. Time's Margaret Carlson, in a burst of inspiration, called it "a wholesome fraud." She meant, of course, the rural context of the State Fair and its Last Supper sculpture in butter. Lamar Alexander emerged as its designated chump.
I had watched Lamar doing everything a candidate should do in the way of seeding, weeding, feeding. And what was his harvest? It looked like the plot where I have my cousin Brian's gift lion, which I wanted to surround by dark red dianthus so the lion would look as if he were wearing a ruby collar. Brown stalks are all that came about, just like Lamar's sixth-place showing.
I identify with Lamar. My neighbor Marie is the George W. of the back of our condo. Everything comes to her. She buys a sorry little lily plant for 39 cents at the Safeway and the next thing you know it has shot up five feet and put out gorgeous flowers that are the floral equivalent of Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus.
For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Mother Nature thought we bloom-challenged needed another lesson in humility. But what she did, for this summer, was level the playing field. No one is more grateful than we are for small favors.