hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

July 13, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: A garden that grows amok

Tom Vartabedian

For the life of me, I cannot seem to grow a garden straight. In fact, I can't even get it to grow period. All I seem to get is an exercise in futility — not fertility.

I don't really need a garden, given my condo living. But we have one of those whiskey barrels out front, just to give the place some color. The petunias I planted there seem to have gotten inebriated.

A bigger concern is our summer place by the lake. We have a nice patch of earth by the side of the cabin facing the water. Now what piece of horticulture wouldn't mind germinating there with the sun and water in equal doses?

Half those petunias decided to rebel and show just leaf, no color. Maybe it's the weeds I tried to skirt beneath the ground that are raising havoc.

I committed a cardinal sin. In my haste to dig up a weed patch, I inadvertently caught some of my wife's favorite flowers and tossed them into the rubble.

How was I to know? I can't tell the difference between impatiens and something that isn't so "patient." To me they looked like weeds with a different color.

"I'm crushed," she groaned. "You dug up my favorite perennials. One was a gift from my Aunt Elizabeth. She's dead and these flowers were all I have left to remind me of my favorite aunt."

Gads! No malice was intended. I didn't know they were a floral shrine. We have only a small garden. For some reason this spring, it went haywire with weeds.

By now, you may have guessed my plight. Gardening to me is the tall glass of lemonade and hassock that come after my back gives out. I'd rather spend the afternoon writing a story about my gardening escapades than actually living them.

But the sight of wilderness taking over my property gives me an unbearable guilt complex. My lawn is always neatly trimmed and my hedges are cut when needed. I'll even prune a tree, provided I can reach it with a pole pruner.

I've been to some of the finest gardens in the world and marvel at their delight. Fuller's Gardens in North Hampton, N.H., has the best roses I've seen in New England. If you're ever in Vegas, don't pass up Bellagio's. The gambling there takes a back seat to the horticultural wonderland that's present.

Nothing like getting carried away in a romantic reverie of enchanting fragrances and captivating color while you clean out your wallet.

A quick garden fix would be Prescott Park in Portsmouth, N.H., right by the ocean. I often find my way to these places with a camera. The work and patience it takes to maintain their beauty boggles my mind, never mind the green thumb you must exercise.

The grand prize goes to Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, where I spent many a day investigating Austria's imperial heritage while studying in that country during 1960. The place is festooned with horticultural wonder as if Edward Scissorhands (the Johnny Depp movie) was living on the property.

"Consider it done," I proclaimed. "No matter what — rain or shine — I'll give the garden its due. Sow so ye shall reap."

So I plunged right in on my hands and knees, using a trowel to unearth everything in my path. Don't ask me what I destroyed. I can't tell you. By the names which were rattled off, I can only say it was serious stuff.

"Do you know what it would cost to replace all of that?" she lashed out. "I couldn't even put a value on that."

I was willing to hand over my life, but that would have been a cop-out. I was willing to purchase the Fuller Estates. No deal.

Her mild sob reduced me to the size of a petunia. I hung my head in silence.

I have stopped keeping up with people who can grow tulips in the desert. I envy anyone who can grow a dozen species of roses and not get pricked. I'll raise my lemonade glass to the gardener who can bury a seed in the ground and get a bean stock.

The only thing that's ever been raised on my land is taxes.

One of my favorite assignments at the newspaper was reporting on gardens of the month. It was amazing to see how different people churned the earth and what came out of it.

In chatting with the owners, I have come to the conclusion that all gardeners know more than other gardeners and that it's a job that never gets done.

I begged my wife's pardon with a dozen long-stemmed roses.

She said they were just in time for my funeral.

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.