Spring Planting: Another Chance to Feel Alive
I'm peeling the skin off a fresh blister just under the base of my ring finger on my right hand. It hurt two days ago, now it feels soothing. This superficial wound is my badge of honor, an unobtrusive signal that spring has arrived.
I picked up the trophy from tossing a shovel around for two days the last weekend of March, spading the flower beds, readying for a small tradition known only to me and my wife-the planting of flowers, including the preparation and the care-taking through the early weeks of spring and summer. Watering and weeding become small pleasures when the blooms come to color a smile on my small city lot's back and front yards.
I've been doing this for a couple of decades. There is little fanfare, no recognition and only self-satisfaction, which I have decided is the best kind. The snails and cats recognize my work for all the wrong reasons, and my wife or her sister-in-law can obliviously miss my work when they roll their car tires over parts of the just-maturing bed of impatients.
Any way you look at it, though, I am a happy, satisfied man this time of year.
For people like me, chained to desks, computer screens and phones, a couple of days of physical labor in a bright warm sun can remind us there are other things than the endless electronically-driven words and numbers that pour at us constantly. There is something cleansing about getting your hands chafed and dirty in soil.
Even though I sometimes use gloves to keep my pampered, computer-keyboard exercised hands protected, when I get to the planting or weeding part of my chores, it feels and works better with skin touching dirt. At 60 and now a grandfather, I can see the gene pool at work.
My Dad's side of the family included my great-grandfather who came to the United States in the post-U.S. Civil War years from Bohemia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to work on building the trans-continental railroad in Nebraska where he worked for free farmland and eventually started a farm that remained in my family for nearly a century.
No wonder I liked gardening the most among the mandatory 10-week "shop" classes we had to take as seventh-grade junior high school students in the mid-1950s in the LA School System. The genes seem to have stopped with me, however, as my children have never shown any agrarian tendencies and my wife's "gardening" involves clipping an occasional rose off one of the backyard bushes.
I grew up in an era when gardeners were only for the very wealthy. "We" took care of our own yards in the 1950s, and the we invariably meant the children, rarely the parents. My late mother had dozens of rose bushes, and she did a lot of work with them, but week-to-week, I cut the grass, weeded, and often fertilized roses, vegetable gardens, trees and lawns.
I came to hate gardening, and from the time I was in college and the use of gardeners had spread to the middle class in Southern California, I avoided it like a bad dream.
Nowadays I view the ubiquitous gardeners in our part of the world with a sort of envy that comes from being just a spring-summer wannabe. The fresh air and sunshine seems a much more sensible place to work, particularly when you live in this part of the world.
This year I have stretched out the planting, so that even as I write this I have another Saturday or Sunday when flowers will need to be carefully selected and then planted in the upper half of a front yard bed. I already can visualize the pastels of impatients covering the brown earth I now stare at when I go out early in the morning to rescue the newspapers.
For weeks after the planting is completed, I use these brief, quiet morning interludes to check on the flowers' growth, and to see if my annual battle with snails is about to begin. The cats even step more carefully once the flowers take root.
Most people would see this little spring ritual as silly, and certainly not cerebral. It can be literally a physical pain in the neck, shoulders and back for one who doesn't use a shovel but for a few days a year.
But it is honest, clean and necessary work. I'm rarely dissatisfied with the end-product. Now, if I can only get my sister-in-law, a medical doctor, to back her car straight down the driveway, I will know summer cannot be far away.
Note: this "joy of gardening" piece appeared in the LA Daily News, Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and South Bay Daily Breeze May 11, 16, 16 and 22, 2004 respectively.