Gardening isn’t just gardening, it’s life

By Sari Friedman Daily Planet correspondent
Friday August 17, 2001

Grinding a slug under the heel of your boot and then selecting flora to tenderly cultivate. Methodically exterminating generations of snails and then constructing your very own greenhouse.  

Covering some earth with a patio while transforming another space into a pond which you carefully nurture and refer to as a “womb chamber.” 

Welcome to “gardening.”  

“My garden is all about balance, about choices,” writes Simone Martel, who spent important moments of her childhood alone with her black cat, Sylvia in a garden in the Berkeley Hills.  

As a teenager, Martel found herself wandering through the four acre Blake Estate, a manifestly cultivated garden in Kensington which is open to the public on weekdays, and within which the president of the University of California resides.  

While Martel herself was in college, she married and moved into a home in the Berkeley flats. Martel’s book, “The Expectant Gardener,” recently published by Berkeley’s Creative Arts Book Company, chronicles Martel’s 10 years in this house, where she made the journey from novice gardener to expert amateur horticulturist.  

Martel documents this journey plant by plant and year by year – from the daffodils which bloom in the first warm days of February, to the tomato plants which bear fruit into November.  

Every plant has its own strength and meaning, such as the trailing lobelia on her front porch which still have the power to make her mother wince.  

Martel points out that where some people see a flower, she now perceives a process; she finds herself marveling at how a few dusty seedlings can turn into eight foot hollyhocks, and an almond shaped tuber becomes a big blooming dahlia.  

She also finds herself feeling prejudiced against some plants, while favoring others. She characterizes plant varieties as “banal” or “placid.” 

Martel’s heading toward that pivotal moment in which she will “garden” her own life and have her first child. 

“Mother Nature” isn’t so compliant as Martel would like.  

Martel warily deals with the weeds which flourish in every month of the year, and her personal ambitions – such as for white oleander (Nerium oleander) are periodically destroyed by climactic changes or the invading seeds from neighboring gardens. 

Sometimes Martel herself becomes fickle: planting, then ripping out, flower varieties; landscaping with native shrubs, then adding exotics.  

The chores never seem to end and Martel is meticulous and obsessed.  

She moves through scores of gardening tomes and catalogs; gets personal about the “wonders of mulch” and takes issue with the bias against conventional lawns. (She likes a little lawn.) 

What I like best in “The Expectant Gardener,” is Martel’s analogy between a garden and life.  

We hear that “A hard frost strikes about once every five years. When it does, only the toughest, most established hibiscus, bougainvillea, and other tropical plants survive.”  

We learn about how much difference “time” makes – the passing years help some plants to mature and grow comfortable. We learn that when a plant bolts it grows quickly, makes seeds, and dies prematurely. In hot weather; for example, lettuce sometimes bolts and becomes too bitter to eat. 

But my favorite bit of wisdom is this: “Gardening had taught me that time passes, seasons go by, things change. If you wait too long, sometimes it’s too late.” 

After 10 years of gardening Simone Martel concludes that nature is uncontrollable. When it is time, Martel harvests her garlic chives and one day she goes into labor. She asks herself: “Why do we make gardens? Why on earth do we bother?” 

She answers: “You have to learn to cherish. You have to dare to take the risk, to bother, to care.” 

Sari Friedman is finishing her first novel and teaches writing at local community colleges. She can be reached at Literate2@Yahoo.Com