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
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
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
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