It’s Act I, Scene II of Hamlet, and we’ve just met the prince, who’s been away. In his absence, life around the castle has gotten seriously out of hand, and Hamlet is seriously miffed. “’Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed,” he says. “Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.”
I must say I’m getting a little fed up around here, myself. Hamlet, of course, was speaking metaphorically. The unweeded garden he’s complaining about is the world. But the unweeded garden that’s got me miffed is, in fact, my unweeded garden.
I left town this spring for Italy; twenty-four lovely and amazing days beginning in mid-April. But—as the poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote—April is the cruelest month. What he clearly meant is that if you let your perennial border and/or your tomato patch go to hell for most of April—not to mention the early part of May—you can kiss this year’s growing season good-bye. I neglected both the perennials and the tomatoes, and now it’s “The Waste Land.”
There’s a lot of stuff to do in the garden in April, and I wasn’t here to do it. Clearing last year’s debris, pruning perennials and shrubs, preparing the ground for this year’s planting, mulching, repelling the first vanguard of this year’s weeds . . . posh: I was busy. I was busy eating moscardini in rooms where Rafael may have dined. I was busy saying grazie, I think I will have another chunk of that wonderful parmigiano reggiano and grazie, don’t mind if I do have another glass of that heady grappa di moscato.
I lolled, that’s what I did. I lolled in Italy—like Antony in Egypt—when I ought to have been here in my own backyard, tilling the soil like an honest plowman. And when I did return, I looked upon my works and despaired. That border, that tomato patch—“this blessed plot, this earth, this realm”—they were just too damned much work for a man newly accustomed to the café life. And so things went, as it were, to seed.
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The perennial border now reminds me of one of those overgrown, post-human-race landscapes in an old episode of the Twilight Zone. I expect to find Burgess Meredith in there. Or perhaps the last living Japanese soldier, unaware that World War II is over, hiding out with his rifle and canteen. It’s like Burma, but with weeds. And the weeds themselves are lush and glowering. The perennials are defeated. Those flowers that are blooming appear to be trying to flee.
The bugs are intolerable. They’re always bad around here in summer, but they seem oddly invigorated, as if flushed with victory. The forces of chaos are ascendant; the bugs, driven by a motiveless malignity, are like sharks that can fly. My stalwart resolve to get back out there and regain control of the garden is defeated by my hatred of gnats getting in my ears.
And alas, the tomato patch. To save some mulching while away, I laid down biodegradable paper to discourage weeds. Instead, as the paper biodegrades, it becomes a kind of weed fertilizer. Moreover, the tomato plants hate it; under those few scraps of paper that remain, their roots, it would seem, are stewing alive. The plants are hardly up to my knee, and it’s July. They’re like bonsai tomato plants.
By early July, I am usually standing in deep, warm and fragrant pine bark mulch, staring eyeball-to-eyeball with my lush and barely containable tomato plants. Ordinarily, by now I am obsessively guarding the ripening tomatoes from squirrels. But where are the squirrels of July–aye, where are they? Look at the photo of my tomato patch. It’s the Somme. It lacks only trenches and barbed wire, and someone shooting up flares at night.
Allow me to mention crabgrass once again. In early April, tiny, pliant shoots of crabgrass offered themselves up to anyone willing merely to bend over and pluck them out of the ground. But now, thanks to my neglect, they are like the extraterrestrial plants in Day of the Triffids, a movie that–when I first saw it at the age of 12–I would never have imagined would someday become my reality. Okay . . . close to my reality. Somewhat.
I sneak past the crabgrass cautiously, avoiding eye contact.