The Joy of Terrible Gardening

Contempt doesn’t always have to be sustained or even all that intense. Sometimes it can be sporadically felt or unfocused. I, for example, hate the three bougainvilleas in my yard. Each is disappointing in its own way: too spindly, too leafy, too dead. They make me angry, but only when I look at them, which isn’t all that often. One shouldn’t parent one’s children with this attitude, but I find that it’s the ideal way to garden.

My yard isn’t all failures. There is a pear tree that the man who lived in our house in the 1960s pruned, chopped and directed into a menorah-like shape. It blooms every spring with white, delicate flowers that eventually turn into somewhat mushy and disappointing pears. Along the fence, you’ll see a grove of camellias that offer up dense, pink blooms that my child picks and soaks in water to make perfume. But these trees perform without any promptingby me — they, for the most part, do just fine on their own.

My interest in gardening started in my 20swhen I came across a British publication called The Idler. The magazine’s founder, Tom Hodgkinson, had published a book titled, “How to Be Idle,” which promoted a type of dignified dilettantism centered around walks, friends and gardens. This seemed right to me. I did not have that many friends at the time, but I spent a lot of time paddling around in the ocean, which I thought was about as good as a walk. What I did not have, because I had no money and lived in a small apartment in San Francisco, was a garden.

Hodgkinson’s work left a lasting impression on me, although one that did not show up in my life for another 15 or so years. I agreed with his message to drop out and not think of oneself as simply a vessel for work and technology, but I ended up in digital media and journalism, two fields that ensure that you spend at least 10 hours a day staring at a screen. And your labor often gets paid by the word.

It wasn’t until right before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when my family moved back to Northern California from Brooklyn, that I was able to find a place with a yard. Like most new homeowners, especially those who spent most of their adult lives in terrible apartments, I started ambitiously with frequent trips to area nurseries. I tried a lemon tree (eaten by deer), a grove of Echium wildpretii,a desert plant that can shoot out a seven-foot tower of red flowers (the tower sprouted but faltered quickly)and various potted plants that I mostly picked out because they looked cool (now all dead).

One would think that writers, especially careful ones, would make for good gardeners. There are many metaphors you can employ — the plotting of land, the act of weeding out what’s invasive or unnecessary, the need for constant tending to maximize the harvest. If care and discipline aren’t your bag, you could cite the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer/philosopher who came up with the concept of “do-nothing” gardening that does away with over-planning. Fukuoka, like Jack Kerouac and his fellow Dharma Bums, embraces the bramble and says that tilling, pesticides and fertilizer are all spiritual impediments to farming.

For reasons I can’t explain, I have always been resistant to these types of natural metaphors. I spent my early childhood going on annual field trips to Walden Pond and felt no real connection to Thoreau and his hearty procession of insects. Gardens are not like life — plants live and die, but they do so without much meaning. Perhaps people do, too, but we should reserve our deep empathy for something other than plants. Fukuoka’s approach appeals to me a little more, but there’s also something a bit too precious and Luddite about his philosophy. Sometimes it’s necessary to mow your lawn.

In one of those large metal tub planters you’ll sometimes see at midprice brunch spots in California, I’ve planted five poppies. The common ones have bloomed despite the poor, nitrogen-deprived soil I’ve provided them with, but the expensive one — Papaver somniferumhas just grown into a burly mound of pale green, thistly roughage. When it blooms it’s supposed to resemble the Danish flag, but I am not holding out much hope.

My resentment for this Danish flag poppy began last week when my wife announced that it had been overrun by aphids. Now it is a problem, but one that I’m not willing to do much about. My wife, who tends to our five rose bushes with much more care than I’m willing to muster, bought a small bowl of ladybugs that now are at war with the aphids. Our daughter is very invested in the ladybug side of this fight. She still believes that we, humans, can intervene in creative and harm-free ways. I, for my part, am quietly rooting for the aphids.

I’ve arrived on my own lazy gardening philosophy: Try your best to reciprocate the contempt and indifference that nature has for you. When your bougainvilleas refuse to offer up their blooms despite your halfhearted efforts, regard them with the same mild, healthy disdain that you reserve for things that disappoint you, but are not really your problem.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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