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
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
“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
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
“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.