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Mr. Mitchell’s sunny essays are best part of gardening

Jan Hearne • Mar 26, 2012 at 8:41 AM

Spring is here, which means it’s time to turn to Henry Mitchell, the late garden columnist for the Washington Post, whose outlook on gardening cheers me.

Sadly, Mr. Mitchell died (in his garden, lucky man) in 1993. Though his followers continue to feel the loss, I think he would consider himself blessed, having been spared the folderol being made over gardens these days.

More than 30 years ago he wrote, “Some mischief has been done, probably, by calling the garden an ‘outdoor living room,’ as if any living room in the world had such wonderful things in it as a garden has.”

I can only imagine what he would have to say about the overstuffed couches, lamps, rugs, tea sets and other accessories being dragged out onto the lawn, not to mention, the five-star outdoor kitchens that have replaced the Weber grill.

In the late 1970s he said of lawn furniture: “... it should be weatherproof. If the chair cushions cannot take rain and sun, to hell with them. If the glass top table has to be polished every time you set a cup or a paw on it, to hell with it. Which of the large staff of servants do we think is going to store the chair every night, or at every cloudburst, and who is going to clean the glass top?”

My sentiments exactly, but then you should see the state of my “garden” this year. The lawn furniture is in tatters, the backyard garden is a formidable rectangle piled with last fall’s leaves and bordered on one side with out-of-control ‘Helen Von Stein’ lamb’s ear.

A lovely patch of narcissus is flanked by a yucca that needs to be moved. A large rosemary plant is the only bright spot, but it looks sadly out of place. Day lilies pop up here and there along with a multitude of chives.

A friend offered me the day lilies a couple of years ago. As he dug them, he said, “There are some chives in here, do you mind?”

Not at all, I said. Oh, how I regret that decision. Chives are a menace.

A lonely chard survived the winter, and sits in a sea of chives and leaves, eyeing me, I imagine, with anger or despair.

But Mr. Mitchell warns against anthropomorphizing plants — for the plants’ sake. “The current fad of talking and singing to plants and telling them we love them will probably result in nothing more impressive than a vastly increased rate of plant mortality — as gardeners proceed farther and farther down the foolish road of what they presume to be utter communion.”

He goes on to say, quit fussing and let plants do what God intended them to do — grow. The time to worry obsessively over a plant’s welfare is right before you plant it, he says. A properly dug hole properly sited is the best gift you can give a tender seedling.

How I am going to deal with my rectangular wasteland is beyond me. It will take at least another evening or ten, nestled in my tattered lawn chair, reading through Mr. Mitchell’s essays before I can be sure what I should do.

It is by far my favorite gardening chore.

Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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