CHICAGO, Illinois–The weather’s icy and the year’s seeds and plants have long since been ordered. At this time of year, there’s not much a Chicago gardener can do except catch up on her reading. What reading? Books on gardening, of course.
Sturdy, comfortable, easily washed clothes are what I wear in the garden, typically the farmer’s uniform of T-shirt and jeans.
Several of the volumes I’ve been reading lately have gone beyond plants to address the question of what to wear in the garden. I hadn’t before considered fashion in gardening (some would say I never consider it anywhere else, either) and it seems an odd notion. Or maybe it’s just these writers’ notions that are odd.
One author was a devotee of Vita Sackville-West and advocated a gardening costume based on hers–velvet coat and jodhpurs, which, besides being hard to come by, strike me as expensive to clean. Sackville-West, who is known for having designed the gardens on her British estate, Sissinghurst, has never struck me really as being what you might call a dirt gardener. Another writer promoted Florentine garden hats, which she acquires on regular trips to Italy.
Since whatever I wear is generally going to be caked with dirt–the heavy, sticky clay soil of a northeastern Illinois garden–and my hands, arms and face usually wind up liberally smeared with it, too, it’s hard to be overly concerned with appearances.
Sturdy, comfortable, easily washed clothes are what I wear in the garden, typically the farmer’s uniform of T-shirt and jeans. Gardening can be tough on the knees, since so much of it is performed from a kneeling position, so I’ve learned that long pants are generally a better idea than shorts. From time to time I’ve considered buying a pair of special gardening trousers with padded knees, but I’m sure they would always be in the wash or otherwise unavailable when wanted. I’ve tried kneepads but found them uncomfortable.
On sunny days, a hat is essential. I use whatever comes to hand: a wide-brimmed straw souvenir of Disneyland; a floppy, denim leftover from the hippie ’70s; the modern farmer’s favorite billed mesh cap (a gift from Texan friends, mine is emblazoned with “I ™ Austin”).
A wide-brimmed hat offers some protection, but when the program calls for lots of weeding or other bent-over chores, a high-collared shirt or a bandana around the neck staves off a sunburned nape. On harvest days, when reaching among prickly squash vines, or when trimming hedges and pruning roses, I try to remember long sleeves. More often, I’ll sport a lovely collection of scratches, scrapes, and nettle rash.
There are only two areas where I’ve succumbed to specialty gardenwear–hands and feet. I love my rubber garden clogs, bought from a mail-order house. Their hard soles let you wield a spade in comfort; they’re easily kicked off so you can curl your toes in the grass or keep from tracking in mud on quick trips into the house, and they can be cleaned with a quick rinse from the garden hose.
For cool days and especially muddy jobs, I have a pair of English Wellingtons, knee-high rubber boots specially made for gardening with a reinforced arch for digging. These boots are great in the dewy early mornings, and I recommend them for anyone who does a lot of work in mud. They’re available through various mail-order sources.
A lot of gardeners like the feel of the soil and think anyone who wears gloves is a wuss, and I confess I used to be one of them. What changed my mind was an insect bite received while working barehanded in the soil. Only quick administration of antihistamine saved me from having to have my wedding ring sawn off my rapidly swelling hand.
So now I try to wear gloves when grubbing around in the dirt. Soft gloves also help ward off blisters during vigorous digging. I like gloves made from goatskin. Softer than deer hide, sturdier than calfskin, they don’t stiffen up after a wetting.
Despite the gloves, my hands remain a mess during the planting season, with torn cuticles and broken fingernails with ineradicable stains and dirt underneath. Daintiness in my garden is reserved for the flowers.
There, too, gardens have fashions. Sackville-West, for example, was renowned for her white garden, which set a trend for white-flowered plants and dusty, silver foliage. This recently became fashionable again, especially in the form of the moonlight garden, which concentrates on night-bloomers, most of which are white, and plants with silvery leaves that show up well at night.
Leah A. Zeldes is food editor of Chicago’s Lerner Newspapers.