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American Pie: That Growing Feeling

...there’s something deep in my soul that longs for a ripening tomato, or the unexpected discovery of a cucumber, ready for picking...

As the Jacaranda and Hibiscus bloom, John Merchant tells of his forays into gardening.

To read more of John's perceptive insights into life in the USA, and life in general, please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=john+merchant

Until four years ago, gardens had been part of my daily life since I was born. My father planted an apple sapling the week I saw the light of day. My parents were keen gardeners, and created one from what had been a small piece of Nottingham Forest in England, home of the legendary Robin Hood, assorted merry men and ostensibly one woman, Maid Marion. Whatever Robin’s talents were, if he actually existed, cultivation wasn’t one of them.

My parent’s plot was a challenging combination of clay, rocks and tree roots. Since there weren’t many distractions in 1933, they soon had the garden in shape. The rocks were used to build - you guessed, rockeries, and any flat stones were used for paving walkways. The tree stumps were burned or retained as accent pieces. Though the construction went quickly, it was a long time before the soil was fit to grow anything really well – except roses.

My parents were smart enough not to swim against the stream, so they planted roses.
Roses thrive in clay and poor drainage so we soon had a wonderful display of bush roses, tea roses, climbers and ramblers. They were all the old-fashioned varieties, before the days of intensive hybridization, so unlike their progeny, they are heavily perfumed. Ena Harkness comes to mind. The rockeries also did well, since the Alpine plants were accustomed to sparse soil and a dearth of nutrients.
When I was long enough out of my swaddling clothes I too was put to work, for, as any gardener knows, there’s always work to do. I wasn’t thrilled by the jobs I was given however. Probably my least favorite was digging weeds out from between the pathway stones with an old dining fork; and yes, there really was a time before weed killers, though there were some folk remedies like soaking them with soapy water.
But if weeds were that easily put off, they wouldn’t have survived through the millennia. No, they just had to be dug out, one by one, “And don’t forget to pull all the roots out.” The other job I had was more embarrassing than onerous – collecting horse droppings. Back then, many suppliers of goods and services to the neighborhood used horse-drawn vehicles. So when one of the nags evacuated in front of our house, it fell to me to go out with a bucket and shovel, often only narrowly beating a neighbor to the treasure. However, the compensation for my embarrassment was healthy roses.

By the time I was of an age to have my own garden, any expertise I possessed was through observation, or learning by doing; not the best way to master the complexities of horticulture. In my turn, I also created two gardens from scratch, but I wasn’t very good at it, even though my mother made sure I had a plentiful supply of transplants and cuttings. I was too impatient, too ignorant, and not of a mind to do the studying necessary to become a successful expert.

But by then, having something growing to care for was systemic in my nature, so I persisted. After caring for two more gardens, I left England to live in the USA. My first home was in Bucks County, outside of Philadelphia. The land my house was built on had been cultivated as a farm since colonial days, so I wasn’t battling infertile soil as I had in the past. The region has a long growing season, and at least when I lived there, plenty of rain and hot sun in the summer.

The garden was 17 years old when I bought the house, but it did not have a vegetable patch. Bursting with enthusiasm, and conditioned by past failures, predictably I over-planted. Pretty soon I was knee deep in tomatoes, beans, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, squash, potatoes and beetroot. My neighbors had similarly productive vegetable gardens, so there were no takers for my surplus. The following year I was less ambitious.

The two homes I subsequently owned had gardens that didn’t lend themselves to horticulture. Both were heavily treed, shutting out the all important sun, and were located in areas of high deer population. Initially, only in the depths of winter, when their natural foods were in short supply, would the deer eat the few plants that thrived in the shade. But like all human and animal creatures, eventually they were drawn to the easy life, and dined off my garden year round.

The homes where I’ve lived recently are condos, and the landscaping is planted and cared for by contractors. The sub-tropical climate of southwest Florida encourages fast growth, so even though much of the landscaping is only a few years old it looks mature. The variety of flowering trees and shrubs is a delight to the eye – Poinciana, Jacaranda, Bougainvillea and Hibiscus abound.

But as pleasing to the eye as they are, there’s something deep in my soul that longs for a ripening tomato, or the unexpected discovery of a cucumber, ready for picking. I have an orchid on my balcony that I tend with loving care, but she’s a cool and distant beauty, and doesn’t inspire that growing feeling.

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