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Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 12:20 am

A certain despair

August is no time for faint-hearted gardeners


It is late August as I write this, a time of year when gardens and gardeners alike begin to look a little, well, tired, for reasons I explored in the column, which appeared in our paper of Aug. 27, 1987. It has been artfully revised and edited for length.

T.  S. Eliot was no gardener, or he would have known that August is the cruelest month. The gardener in August is a broody, hopeless sort of soul. He begins to think that all-out nuclear war wouldn’t really be so bad; it would at least slow down the quackgrass. And it probably doesn’t matter that the meek won’t ever really inherit the earth, because they wouldn’t be up to fighting off the bean beetles for possession of it. It’s too hot, the weeds too rank, the ground too hard, the insects too hungry; all is emphatically not right with the world.

A certain despair settles over the gardener by August. It’s hard to describe. Imagine watching the Contra aid hearings nonstop while snacking on sweets. The resulting malaise is partly philosophical, partly a matter of blood sugar. One always plants too much in April, having forgotten since the previous August how much of a garden can’t be maintained with a lawn mower.

I have been gardening for nearly six summers. This is not long. Vita Sackville-West once said that it took eight years merely to establish a garden, a timetable which once struck me as excessive. Surely, I said to myself, it can’t take longer than four years? And it wouldn’t, if you didn’t have to do everything twice. In the spring, I look out at the swelling buds and the soft green and daydream about leaving my garden to a child someday. By August I recognize that wish as foolish. I will never have a garden and a kid at the same time; as my neighbor, S., once explained to me, I’m just too tired to father a kid.

Gardening on the scale I have attempted is alien to most Americans. (The American middle class raise their yards like they raise their kids; they dress them up prettily, to show the neighbors that they want for nothing, but they do it with little real affection or understanding of their real needs.) Consider the perennial border. A new book about perennials put out by the Rodale people describes a rock garden thus: “Notice how the front border includes areas where the flowers spill out onto the lawn. This is a much more interesting arrangement than a line of flowers neatly edging the lawn.” If that is interesting, my border is riveting. Actually my flowers don’t spill onto the lawn. They sort of stagger.

I also honor one of the rules of border-making: I include flowers whose colors complement that of the house behind it. My house is clad in gray-stained cedar, which goes handsomely with dying coreopsis. I now receive a gardening magazine which I do not really want because they offered, as a promotional giveaway, a 22 x 34-inch chart listing what I read to be “flowers for dying.” Naturally, I signed up. It turned out that the chart lists flowers for drying, but by then it was too late to cancel.

Gardening is a particular test of patience for those who garden, as I do, in inner city neighborhoods. My house was built atop the ruins of the house that used to occupy this land, so that I keep turning up shards of broken glass; when I pick my tomatoes they are already sliced, ha ha. The main problem is the carloads of white liberals from the west side making the tour east of 11th Street. Their clucking noises scare away my birds.

Back in April, when my sap was still running and the borers had not yet chewed their way into my soul, I made fine plans for a garden party. I envisioned 40 or 50 of my intimates (depending on how many I don’t owe money to) strolling about the grounds, lolling beneath the trees. Quips would be made, confidences shared, amusing lies believed, love affairs kindled. I looked forward to a chance to use a line I heard in a German softcore flick, which went, “Excuse me. I have a mango in the oven.”

Then it rained, on and off, for a week, detonating an explosion of weeds. The paths were quickly overgrown and disappeared; a few days later the plants which border them were overtaken, so that even I could not reliably distinguish between path, lawn and flower bed. (It was like trying to recall the once familiar features of a friend who’s just put on 80 pounds.)

Anyway, now it’s August, and I’ve only now cleared away the last of that growth. The garden is strollable again, but the mood is not right for a garden party, what with the screams of dead and dying plants constantly in one’s ears. Perhaps in February. That is the coolest month.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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