Are there actually readers who do as they’re told in “definitive practical guides”?
For the past two months I have hectically engaged in the world’s oldest profession — gardening. The interval between the first summer shower and the monsoon deluge is the busiest time for a gardener in a plot without irrigation. But at some point it is time to down tools and watch the rain from the window. Instead of going into the garden twice a day and tracking mud into the house, I go out once. That’s the season to dust off my gardening books, read more, and dig less.
My oldest gardening book was a glossy purchase made many years ago during a family pilgrimage to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. Among the seed packets, wind chimes and dried-flower arrangements in the gift shop was The RHS Encyclopedia of House Plants: Including Greenhouse Plants. Saar and I instantly laid out our scarce US dollars and disregarded weight and bulk to lug it home. Back then, our garden consisted of 20 pots just outside the front door of our Delhi flat, but we had dreams. In the matter of gardening we were promiscuous, not only tending to our plants but lusting over walls at other people’s, occasionally pinching off a propagule. Every February we promenaded through the Mughal Gardens and jotted down botanical names in a tiny notebook before the armed guards ordered us to walk faster.
By the time we had 40 pots, we were also the proud owners of The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening: The Definitive Practical Guide to etc. This volume was a Dig Veda, systematically demonstrating how to map the garden, sketch a design, decide what plants go where, and plant them. Following that were detailed, generously illustrated instructions for a lifetime of obsessive maintenance.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, it seemed, householders first drew a design, planted according to it, and pruned and trained their plants happily ever after, and never changed their minds. That sounded plausible to us before we bought this acre and a half. Now we wonder how any gardener is able to follow a reference book about gardening. Maybe they all do as we do, spend ten months gardening and two months reading books that we simply treat as fiction.
Our garden is ruled by 300 trees, which take most of the sunshine for themselves. The sun decides when the plants will get light. The clouds decide when they will be watered. The caterpillars decide whether they will have any leaves at all. The chickens hate them. For ten months in a year we are the coolies who turn over soil, pull out weeds, and prune maniacally to keep the jungle down.
For the other two months, we straighten our spectacles and read about gardening. About grafting and budding, mulching and training, coppicing and pollarding, pleaching and plashing and crazy paving. We bend over lush pictures of trellises and parterres. And after every chapter, we go out to the verandah to check whether it's time to step back into our muddy reality.