Tuesday, July 3, 2012


The Big Green Weather
Observations Book
            I admit to having obsessive/compulsive tendencies in some areas of my life. At least three weather observations a day (four is better) must be duly noted in the Big Green Weather Book, for example. Towels must be folded in thirds, for another. We flip or rotate the mattress the first weekend of every other month. The sink must be empty by bedtime, the dish drainer before morning coffee. Tim regales audiences at informal gatherings with stories about my list-making, which extends to making lists of the various lists I have running at any given time.

            Okay. Maybe I suffer from more than mild OCD. Whatever gets you through the day, right?

While grooming the nasturtium baskets this morning—which will soon be only nasturtium, since pickleworms have discovered the cucumbers I’d interplanted with them—I realized I’d snipped off some seed heads before they’d ripened. Oh, bugger, I thought. Blew that seed-saving opportunity. (My OCD manifests when it comes to saving seeds. Our refrigerator’s vegetable crisper teems with them.  The disorder does not extend to planting the saved seeds, however.) The oversight inspired me to take a really close look at the flowers, though.

Monoecious nasturtium flowers
Seems nasturtium (Tropaeolum spp.) are monoecious, a botanical term deriving from the Greek for “one house”; it refers to both male and female flowers being borne on the same plant. The female blooms evolve into seedcases while the males just die. (Other species, like hollies, are dioecious—Greek for “two houses”—with male flowers on one plant and female on another. Male hollies never produce babies/berries. Neither do females if there is no male within cross-pollination distance. While we’re on the subject, the quality of dioeciousness applies to pampas grass as well. If yours never erupts into spectacular bloom, you’ve got yourself a boy plant.)   

Gregor Mendel

I find the secret lives of flora endlessly fascinating, and as I pulled off dead leaves and (male) flowers, I found myself thinking about Gregor Mendel, the Austrian Augustinian monk whose obsession with peas in his monastery’s garden resulted in the science of genetics.

George Washington Carver
(photo taken by Frances
Benjamin Johnston in 1906)
Gardening obsessions are quite common. Take George Washington Carver. He saw small farmers struggling to make their livings growing cotton, which not only depletes the soil but doesn't fill the family's stomachs either. He promoted diversification into marketable crops that also offer nutritional value, such as soybeans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. Over a long career at Tuskegee Institute, he wrote dozens of farm bulletins containing some 105 recipes using peanuts. He also developed more than 300 products for farm and home use from the lowly goober, including cosmetics, dyes, gasoline (biofuel!), nitroglycerin, paints and plastics. When it comes to obsessive/compulsiveness, Carver makes me look like a rank amateur.

Other siren-like plants send people into the clutches of a persistent notion that defies rationality. The rosarians are one such group. Even the word “rosarian” conjures up religion. In Otherwise Normal People: Inside the Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening, Aurelia C. Scott captures the insanity overtaking seekers of the title “Queen of Show” at the biannual National Rose Show.  

 Orchid-fanciers suffer from similar obsessive/compulsions, a condition the Victorians called “orchedelirium.” So compelling is this particular form of plantmania, Spike Jonze adapted Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession –the story of the discovery and break-up of a Florida orchid-smuggling ring—into the 2002 movie “Adaptation,” starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. Not bad for an epiphyte. 

            More mundane but just as all-consuming to aficionados, pumpkins claim their own coterie of the unbalanced. The subtitle of Susan Warren’s 2007 book, Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, pretty much says it all.

Growing edibles inspires others to craziness, a sickness I can empathize with. If you struggle with your vegetable plot; if your significant other occasionally remarks that you could have purchased bushels of whatever with the money, resources and time you lavish on your garden; if you wonder if you’re all alone in this unequal struggle against nature, you must read The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander. You’ll feel better about yourself when you finish it.

Of course, Mr. Alexander’s $64 tomato pales in comparison to my own $200 potato patch. After three seasons of dismal yields, this year’s test harvest looked promising. The 12 pounds of four species of seed tubers I planted may actually produce at least that weight in edible spuds, for a happy change. Tomorrow’s the day I’m hauling them in, so fingers crossed, y’all. As a sort of voodoo insurance, I haven’t yet cleared out the closet where I propose to store the bounty until the weather cools down. Just in case.

Test harvest of 'Purple Majesty'
weighed three whole pounds!!
Test harvest of 'Red Caribe'
weighed two-and-a-half pounds!!

Whether for beauty, rareness, usefulness, and/or nutritional value, the quest for that perfect plant is an obsession that lurks in all dedicated gardeners, whether we express it to the point of madness or not.  A little bit of OCD might be all that’s needed to push a weekend putterer into nutcase territory. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Thanks for dropping by.