Gardener, Florist

A.V. Walters

I always thought that there were two types of gardeners, the ones who grew flowers and the ones who grew vegetables. I do recognize that there is some overlap. I grow a few decorative plants while my mother dabbles in lettuce and radishes. But I’ve never known anyone, with a feel for dirt, who didn’t lean strongly in one direction or the other. I’ve known some who gardened vegetables with a decorative eye. (Something I admire and need to work on.) But vegetable gardeners concern themselves with producing food instead of the less tangible, visual rewards. Flower gardeners must also address an aesthetic aspect of gardening, unless they focus just on a cutting garden. Regardless, gardeners are gardeners, and true practitioners come to it with an understanding of space, light, soil and plant needs. (I mean, doesn’t everyone know that you don’t plant a cactus next to a begonia?)

That old pseudo-spiritual expression comes to mind here, “As above, so below.” From a gardener’s perspective, I always thought the expression related to an understanding that whatever plant you saw, there was as much, if not more, going on down below the soil.  Planning a garden requires more than just visualizing what you want to see growing in a particular spot. You need to consider what the spot has to offer and exactly who, in the plant world, would like to live there. Most unsuccessful gardens failed at this stage of the game.

A falling out with a friend made me realize that, in fact, there’s another type of gardener entirely. For decades, my friend had planted profusely every year. An artiste, she enjoyed the over-planted look, veggies, flowers (and anything else that stood still long enough at the nursery) mixed together. It was a fecund and lush look–plants cheek to jowl, a veritable jungle. Like my city turf, she had a very small yard. She maintained that profusion with regular and ample infusions of cash. Her nurseryman was like a permissive psychotherapist. If she wanted a spot of red in the corner, he sold her the plant, without inquiry as to what kind of neighborhood it would enjoy. It was a MiracleGro extravaganza. She disdained my pedestrian goal of high yields and bed rotation.

And so, this continued year after year—me, with my own form of vegetable order—a mini-farm oasis in the city—and she, with her wild-and-wooly lush, instant-gratification, plantings. Of course, she liked her results, so I let her be.  She occasionally made remarks about my garden “rigidity,” to which I could only shrug. I once bemoaned that I didn’t have room for a persimmon, and she chided me that there was plenty of room, suggesting several, inappropriate, locations in my small yard. Her own tiny backyard boasted at least eight different fruit trees, some planted as close as a foot apart, abutting a small rose “forest” with at least forty varieties. Needless to say, her plants would do well initially, but she was always having to remove “problem” plants from the mix. Her interest wasn’t in food production, so to her, her low vegetable yields didn’t signify a larger problem. Admittedly, her back yard was quite something to behold.

Thus we co-existed for years, each of us generously,  and quietly, looking down our noses at each other. That is, until she asked for advice. (I ignored the alarm bells and flashing lights.) Sometimes asking for advice is really just soliciting for approval. Bonding, not solutions, being the objective. This is a typical misunderstanding in between-the-genders communication, but I didn’t expect it in the garden world. I actually thought she wanted gardening advice.

She certainly seemed impressed by the bags of beautiful produce I delivered to her on a regular basis, as did others. Her low yields didn’t bother her, but the scrawny vegetables did. I started, cautiously, indicating that, well, I wouldn’t recommend anything “chemical” as a fix. (She knew me well enough to know that I’d never go there.) So, I pointed out that to enhance quality, she might need to reduce the demands on her soil. You know, too much competition in the root zone could be the problem. What I was suggesting was something entirely foreign to her way of thinking. Not only was I recommending she her reduce her profuse planting, but to actually cull existing (and apparently sacred) plants. She responded in horror, what kind of gardener did I think I was—obviously I was anti-plant! She implied that I was just jealous of her lush sanctuary and only bent on denuding it.

I tried to explain about root competition, pointing to her fruit trees, how you needed to allow them root space of their own, and not entwine them. Well, that was beyond the pale.

It was the beginning of the end of the relationship. Other annoyances soon erupted, but it all started with a difference of style in gardening, of the rhythms between orderly and dramatic.

I’ve adjusted my view of gardening. Flower or vegetable—it’s not really so different. Gardening is about a commitment to soil and plants and nurturing them on their own terms. That other business, it’s not gardening. It’s not sustainable in the way I understand the word. Hey, they’re florists. The objective is the show. It’s not my place to challenge those values.  It’s just a different way of looking at dirt. I don’t always agree because from my side of the fence, it looks extractive. But pointing fingers won’t solve it. We have two entirely different value systems. A florist is a plant arranger whose focus is on the visual presentation. Whether or not dirt is involved, the objective is flora as painted canvas. So, there are gardeners and there are florists. We should nod, wave and appreciate each other’s art form…  and never talk shop.