Advice for the Horticulturally Harassed

The only things worth learning are the things you learn after you know it all.
—Harry Truman

A recent article in the Sunday paper proclaimed that gardening is the fastest-growing leisure activity in the United States. It has reached number two on the closely watched Leisure Popularity Chart, and is breathing hard on the longtime number one, golf. I wanted to call the writer of the article and complain—not because I questioned her facts, but because she caused me to abandon my own preferred leisure activity, mindless loafing, in favor of something far more strenuous: thinking. I didn’t do this for long—my Sunday nap was calling—but it left me with three nagging questions:

1. Why is gardening so popular?

2. Isn’t “leisure activity” an oxymoron?

3. What’s the connection between gardening and golf, and is it cause for alarm?

Squash & Driver - Illustration by Helen KrayenhoffGolf and gardening have several strong connections. Both take place out of doors; both begin with high hopes and often end in confusion and frustration; and both employ metal implements to displace random clumps of dirt. There is also a peculiar negative connection. Because golf and gardening are both quite time-consuming, they are seldom engaged in by the same people.

This is too bad. Think of the time that could be saved if golf and gardening were combined. While a foursome was waiting for the snail-paced idiots in front of them to get off the next tee, they could be planting fruits and vegetables that future golfers could enjoy. Roughs could become cornfields, sand traps could be filled with melons, and the edges of greens could be beautified with parsley, rosemary and sage. Golfer/gardeners would no longer waste time telling lies about their scores and figuring out ways to mess up their partners’ swings. And because gardeners are most often in a stooped or kneeling position, there is little chance of the gardener/golfer being hit by a stray ball. Someone should really look into this. A committee led by Tiger Woods and former first lady Michelle Obama would, I think, be ideal.

Yes, “leisure activity” is an oxymoron. Leisure is leisure, and activity is activity, and never the twain shall meet. Not on my sofa, anyway.

There are three reasons for gardening’s immense and burgeoning popularity. The first is that, in an overpopulated, impossibly paced, increasingly urbanized world, it gives people a chance to get closer to the earth in a directly meaningful fashion, and to experience firsthand the ways and the time that nature employs to get things done. It is not virtual reality; it’s the real thing.

The second reason has to do with results. Even a moderately successful gardener can produce lovely flowers and shrubs, herbs, fruits and vegetables that look and taste real. In these days of year-round produce from the antipodes, hybridized thick-skinned fruit safe from the savageries of transportation, and fantastic plastic enclosures for everything, the full, earthy, indelicate taste of a homegrown tomato or peach is the horticultural equivalent of a hole in one.

The third, and least discussed, reason for gardening’s popularity is that it allows grownups to wear ragged old clothes and silly hats and play in the dirt without any shame whatsoever. So go for it, I say. I’ll watch and, like all those who lack the gardening gene, I’ll hope for a big harvest. As for you golfers: Keep those elbows tucked, or trade in your five-irons for trowels. They’re gaining on you.