I’ve always resisted learning the metric system, probably out of pure stubbornness. I know clearly what our measurements look like: I can measure an inch with my fingertip and I know how far I’d have to walk to go a mile. But ask me to point out a millimeter, a kilometer or most any other metric term, and I get no mental picture.
Centimeters though, present a clear image in my mind, thanks to a lavender disaster one March day several years ago.
For quite a few years, I used to host foreign exchange students, who came to work with me and learn my methods of herb growing and marketing. Usually in their 20s, these students held degrees in agriculture and were reasonably fluent in English, so communication usually was not a big problem.
Akos was my first exchange student, who arrived that day in March from Budapest, Hungary. I got him settled into a little apartment on my farm and within a few days began giving him work assignments in the garden.
His first assignment was to prune my lavender plants, readying them for spring. I explained how particular I am about my lavenders. Over the years I’ve learned that they require a raised bed in this climate; otherwise their roots rot and die. They want a bit of mulch, which I provide with pine needles — too much mulch will choke them, I explained to Akos. Every year they get a light application of garden lime, and never, ever, should one dig around the base of the plant. Lavenders have very shallow, easily damaged roots.
The young man stood patiently, nodding his head and eagerly trying to absorb everything I was saying. When I asked, “Do you understand?” he nodded with a polite, “Yes.”
I was assured, so I handed him a pair of trimmers and explained how I wanted him to prune the lavender plants. “Cutting them back to 8 to 10 inches will be plenty,” I said. He nodded that he understood. I pointed out where the trimmings should be thrown over the garden fence to the goats — who would enjoy lavender for lunch. Then I went off to do my own work in an attempt not to hover or suggest that I didn’t trust him.
Some time later, I looked out the window and saw Akos still working diligently on the lavender bed. I could see piles of the old limbs and trimmings carefully put to the side. I went back to my other work.
He came indoors later, said, “I’m done. Come to see,” and I went out to inspect his work.
My mouth dropped open the minute I saw. Instead of plants cut back to eight inches or taller, the stark lavenders were cut nearly to their main trunks. Trying not to scare the poor fellow on his first work assignment, I attempted to lower the horrified pitch of my voice and chose my words carefully.
“How did you decide eight inches was not enough?” I finally managed to ask. He blushed red. “Inches?” he asked. “I don’t know that measurement. I cut these back to eight centimeters.” A centimeter equals about a quarter of an inch, so this was the lavender equivalent of a buzz cut. Although I didn’t tell Akos, I was certain the lavenders would die. But over the following weeks I saw the severely pruned plants putting up new growth. “Maybe in a couple of seasons at least some of the plants will return to their former glory,” I told myself.
To my continuing surprise, by midsummer my lavenders were blooming more than they ever had. The spikes were longer and more numerous and not a single plant died as I had secretly and so dourly predicted.
Now each spring, I laugh as I prune my lavenders, remembering Akos and my lesson in the metric system. Although I never take them quite as close to the ground as Akos did, I do prune them back more severely than I used to, to four of five inches above the main stem. I give them some compost and a light sprinkling of lime, scattered on top of the bed before laying down a new layer of pine needles.
My lavenders have continued to thrive with this treatment and I send an annual thank you email to Akos to remind him of our first misunderstanding and how much I learned from it.
Maybe it’s time I get busy on the rest of the metric system. Lavender is versatile and resilient; maybe I can be, too.
Jim Long writes books and stories from his home in the Ozark Mountains. View his gardens or make comments at www.LongCreekHerbs.com. Chat with Jim or purchase his books online at www.HerbCompanion.com.