Jim Long shares his most embarrassing moment as a gardener.
Every year at the Garden Writers of America conference, more than 500 members meet, tour gardens, listen to programs and lectures, and schmooze about the craft and work of garden writing.
One of the most popular entertainments has become something of a tradition at the conference: karaoke night, where the music is loud, the energy high and the crowd couldn’t be more enthusiastic. Karaoke night is popular because of the absolute glee derived from seeing distinguished personalities and professionals—including television gardening personalities, magazine editors, radio talk-show hosts, newspaper and magazine columnists and garden-book authors—making absolute fools of themselves.
Last year, after karaoke had wound down, a group sat around talking about gardening and associated topics. Someone posed the question, “What’s your most embarrassing moment as a gardener?” I think she had in mind stories about the time we planted parsley and got rhubarb, or we planted the gladiolus bulbs upside down and they headed for China.
As it turned out, the answers were much more dramatic—and hilarious. One writer told of the time she’d fallen sound asleep in the shelter of a well-mulched bed of sunflowers, only to be discovered by her teenage son, who thought she had completely lost her mind.
“He actually called 911!” she said. Another writer had lost her diamond wedding ring in a patch of turnips and didn’t find it until after she and her husband divorced.
When my turn came, I paused a minute, uncertain whether I really should tell my most embarrassing gardening moment.
At the urging of the group, I launched in. “Well,” I began, “this may be a bit radical for this group, but here goes.” I described having moved to my very remote rural home 26 years earlier. At that time I hardly ever saw a car even pass by on my road. Visitors were even scarcer. So there I was, 30 years old and feeling newly liberated to rural life, thrilled at having a real garden to tend.
“I was a late-blooming hippie,” I said. “It was just me and the Earth, me getting down to the basics of life. I wanted to be totally at one with the Universe.”
In my one-with-nature state of mind, I soon began gardening without a shirt. Then I also slipped out of my shoes, reveling in the delicious sensation of fertile soil under my feet, a sensual treasure I hadn’t experienced since childhood. As I began to feel more and more free, it occurred to me that, if anyone did happen by on my road, I easily could hear their tires on the gravel half a mile away. “Why not?” I asked myself.
Gardening nude in a completely secluded location was a freedom I had never experienced. It became a daily routine. Aside from the feeling that the dog and cat were looking at me strangely, I gardened au naturel without incident for several weeks, but one afternoon as I weeded along a raised bed of bronze fennel, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of a human voice—very nearby.
I peeked over the fennel and there, not 50 feet away, stood a smartly dressed, matronly woman, her hand resting on my very own garden gate. Her car—with another woman sitting in the passenger’s seat—was parked in my driveway. Peering through the fennel, I could see she was driving an old Buick, the kind with big, balloonlike tires—stealth tires that could glide silently on a graveled country road.
I stood up, carefully keeping the chest-high bed of fennel between the uninvited visitor and me. Calling softly, she asked—as best I could tell—if I knew some long lost cousin of hers who had lived nearby, decades before. No, I didn’t, I declared politely, in a voice that did not invite further conversation. Not taking the hint, she continued asking questions in that soft voice, which meant I kept asking her to repeat what she’d said.
“Young man,” she responded, with much exasperation. “If you would come a little closer I wouldn’t have to repeat myself. It is unkind of you to make me yell.”
“Unkind? Unkind?” I thought to myself. “You’re in my yard, uninvited, and you’re telling me where to stand? Hmmph.”
Still, I remained courteously behind the fennel, not wanting to shock the lady. She didn’t take the hint and prattled on about the many fascinating branches of her family tree. Then, once again she insisted—practically commanded—that I join her at the garden gate.
“Ok,” I mumbled to myself. “This is my farm, my garden and you are the intruder.” I stepped out from behind the fennel and strode toward the woman. Her eyes widened and she suddenly became very interested in the trees, the sky, the power lines over the garden. Still, she didn’t stop her monologue. She kept talking as she watched the barn swallows diving overhead, surveyed the shed behind me, toward the hills beyond. Finally, her voice trailed off mid-sentence and she spun around and scrambled into her old Buick. The car’s silent tires snaked up the gravel driveway, over the hill and out of sight. The ladies were gone.
By this time, my garden writer friends were howling with laughter. I told them my only regret was that I couldn’t listen in on the conversation between the two ladies as they drove away. I admitted that, even after this embarrassing situation, I didn’t change my routine. But I did keep an extra pair of shorts nearby—just in case.
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