(Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 29, 2008)
What other hobby or pastime ‘allows' failure like gardening? A popular mantra states that one should not give up on a plant unless he or she has killed it at least three times. Now there's a thought! Gardener's Hippocratic Oath? We gardeners have adopted a baseball batter mentality. A player who fails two out of three times is a Hall of Famer, after all, so I'll be darned if I'll give up after only two or three attempts! But if one was quilting, for example, would one out of three successes suffice? Of course not.
This gardening psychosis takes otherwise sane, intelligent people and separates them from all sense of reality and cause and effect. How many times have you planted the same plant in the same area, stubbornly deluding yourself that the next time will be the charm? Better still, we insist on putting plants where we want them, not where they will grow best.
Not dead enough yet?
We put sun lovers in shady areas, drainage-craving plants in wet areas and acid-loving plants in alkaline soil. Then we are genuinelyupset when they don't grow. How dare they! Those of us with deer problems refuse to surrender, and will spend $100 on sprays to protect a $15 shrub. We'll show them who the boss is! Seed starters will boast that they save so much money, yet omit the ‘dollar value' of all the time and effort that goes into producing that impatiens that can often be bought for much less than a dollar each in large flats.
Who among us has never ignored the plant label or description, and planted a shrub or tree whose mature size far exceeds its new home? Consciously or not, we either think that it will not actually reach that size somehow, or that we will have moved to a new house by then, leaving the problem to the new owners. (This denial is akin to putting the lid down on a toilet about to overflow, only in slow motion.) Of course, before we know it, it is indeed too big and we have to remove it entirely, pay someone to relocate it or risk serious injury and attempt the relocation ourselves.
The psychosis also extends to the failure to acknowledge death. We see plants that, by all rights, should have a large ‘Do Not Resuscitate!' tag on them, offered by the big box stores or nurseries for cents on a dollar. We ‘save' them and are convinced we just scored a major coup. Little do we realize that we did the store a favor and that the employees erupted in laughter as we pulled out of the parking lot. We then get them home and gleefully give them more TLC than we give our children. And how we beam when that 10% actually make it! It's the prodigal son revisited as our loyal garden stars scream out, ‘What about us?!'
I have witnessed first-hand an extreme example of the denial-of-death syndrome. My first attempt at planting a Japanese maple ended in failure, most likely due to the exposed location. I did not want to give up on it, as it had been very expensive. So I stared at it, talked to it - even in Japanese, and waited. Nothing. I prayed for it, offered quiet incantations, and even gently caressed it. Nothing. I finally brought myself to perform the feared thumbnail scratch test - a test I deemed more appropriate for some co-workers than for my precious tree. As the tip of my nail made contact with the outermost cell of the twig, the entire branch snapped off. A follow-up scratch of the trunk fared no better. It was over.
Seeking closure, I asked my contractor friend, who was working on my house, to help me with the exhumation. He interjected, ‘You're not giving up on this, are you?' I simply pointed to the limb lying there. ‘That doesn't mean anything. You have a baseball bat?' Surely he did not want to play now, I thought. Maybe to help pry the tree out? ‘For what?', I finally asked. ‘I'm gonna beat it back to life.' He explained that he had saved a number of plants by beating on them, prompting a major stress response which re-animated them. Sensing I might be in the presence of a true healer, I obliged.
Why not DIY?
‘Okay, stand back', he said. He then beat on my poor maple for about five minutes. This is where sadist met masochist. I prayed no neighbors were witnessing this. I fretted that there was some plant abuse hotline picking up at that moment. He finally stopped and told me to give it a few days. It never did return, and so aside from still having to remove it, I had been irreparably traumatized.
Gardening masochism greatly affects our financial sense as well. We place order after order, robotically responding to the ‘I gotta have that!' compulsion. Even otherwise frugal people succumb to the ordering mania. Then the plants start to arrive. More arrive each day. You see the UPS and FedEx guys more than your family. You unpack them and then it hits you - ‘What in the world was I thinking?!!' You try to hide the plants and the credit card bills from your spouse. Eventually you get busted. ‘You didn't get more plants, did you?' ‘No, no, I swear!', you respond. ‘Then what's this?' The spouse / interrogator points to an errant plant label sticking out of your pocket. Gulp.
That lapse of reasoning does not end with plants. A few years back I thought I was being smart and thrifty by having mulch delivered.Why should I pay someone to spread it when I could do it and be more careful about it to boot? Well, 25 yards and countless hours later, every cell of my body was screaming.
This gardener has chronic lower back and knee problems and often comes in from gardening in real pain. My garden essentials include pain relieving pills and rub, as well as ice and heat packs. But I still do it. I have seasonal allergies and often have sneezing fits lasting five minutes. But I still do it. I am a mosquito magnet and I'm allergic to bees and carry a dual Epi-Pen with me. But I still do it. I curse the deer whose fresh poop greets me as I start my day. But I still do it. Masochist? Answering that might be painful.
This is dedicated to all my fellow gardening masochists. I truly feel your pain!
All photos by author.