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Methodical man, impatient woman mix it up in a garden


The first time my husband saw me plant a petunia he skidded across the yard like the Roadrunner. “Gently, gently! You’re gonna tear the roots!”

Newly married and unused to having my habits questioned, I rocked back on my heels, spanked another tiny plastic pot, released another captive petunia and plunked it into the hole. Andrew removed the petunia as carefully as a brain surgeon, leaned it against his palm and began detangling the frayed roots. “You,” he said, “are banned from the garden.”

He proceeded on his own, so slowly and steadily I thought I’d lose my mind. He was determined to plan it all out, plant one thing at a time and baby it until it was solidly established. At this rate we’d finish the flowerbed in 2007.

The following spring, I put the gloves on, and the clogs, and an old Amish straw hat. “This is my yard, too,” I announced, “and you’re going far too slowly. I want abundance, lush foliage, color everywhere. Flowers are resilient, if they’re going to grow they’ll grow.” We reached a tenuous compromise: I could plant the annuals in containers, and be as slapdash as I liked, and he’d continue putting the lifelong shrubs and perennials into the ground, one at a time.

Since my expulsion from the garden, I’d been poring over garden catalogs the way other women look at the Neiman-Marcus Christmas book. Now all that dammed energy burst forth, as though he’d pruned me back so I could blossom more rampantly. I filled every stone urn, every terra cotta flowerpot, every hollowed-out swan I could find, filled them until they overflowed with daisies, dripped vinca vine, frilled themselves with geranium leaves. We congratulated ourselves on having found a system that drew on each of our strong suits, and made it impossible for us to tread on each other’s territory.

But ambition cannot be contained.

Every day, as I watered the pots, I’d glance sidelong at the flowerbeds, and ask timid little questions about when we were going to get the blueberry bushes, and … er … had he happened to see those wonderful irises in the Wayside catalog? He pointed to the herbs, already in place and growing nicely, and the rose bushes, and the candytuft. “Everything in time,” he said. “Gardens take years to take shape, you know.”

Years! But this was our paradise, a metaphor for our lives together, our ability to create beauty and peace, nurture life, even tempt a little sin. We needed fruit trees, and hot color to lure the butterflies. The third year, I went mad. Didn’t even ask permission, just started planting, finishing out the long flowerbed, edging over into the main yard and down the other side. There was tacit silence, a truce of sorts: I’d watched Andrew plant often enough now that my hands slowed of their own accord. I’d learned the hard art of discernment -- when to coddle, when to kill ruthlessly, when to kneel and listen. By mid-summer we’d reached a new compromise: I’d start things, get them into the ground at least, and then he’d fix them, raise the roses that inevitably sank after I planted them, dig out my crooked brick attempt at a path.

This spring, we bought the new plants together on our anniversary trip to New Harmony, Ind., walking happily up and down the rows of the flower festival. By now we both knew the garden well enough that the decisions were mutual and instant. Back home, I walked around with my pad of graph paper, diagramming flowerbeds and making little circles for the shrubs just like landscape architects do. Andrew smiled to himself -- I saw him -- but he didn’t make fun. Everywhere we looked, there was more to be done: The ivy had taken over, the lavender grown woody, a new strip to be filled with plants. But I bided my time. We ordered tiny apple trees, and knew without discussing it who would plant them. I knelt beside him, watching his big hands gently tamp the soil to remove any air pockets. He let me hold the delicate little tree trunks steady while he filled in around their roots.

This, I realized with a start, was paradise.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001