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Never Say Die

The motto of fanatic gardeners


With shortening days and colder weather, many deciduous trees and shrubs have exchanged their mellow green, leafy summer foliage for something more striking. Like watching potbellied Americans deplane in flowered shirts after a fabulous Hawaiian vacation, this switch in leafy attire makes the trees garish and loud. If trees could talk they'd be shouting, "What a great time I had this summer!" This fall celebration of color is an end of the year bash; it's woody plants gone wild. Look how they make us stare as they flaunt screaming yellows, reds and oranges. Instead of just lifting their shirts they totally change them right before our eyes. Later these same shameless trees will drop their entire canopies to expose naked limbs to Old Man Winter.

I watch the trees and shrubs around town make spectacles of themselves with a sense of awe and a touch of foreboding. Their color change and leaf drop spells the end of outdoor gardening for the year. The season is over, done, kaput; it's time to put the garden to bed and prepare for a long, barren stasis indoors.

That's what I should be doing, but I'm like a crow pecking at road kill; I refuse to leave. I was out in the dark last night with halogen construction lights on tripods trying to squeeze one more hour of blessed gardening in, my fanaticism mocked by moths fluttering and dancing in the halo of my unnatural light. They bumped against my face and fluttered around my ears and into my hair and eventually made me give up for the night.

Perhaps I've become one of those eccentric old ladies who wears funny hats that make the neighborhood kids whisper and laugh. The kindly Miss Marple type who has a mission in life that no longer fits into the natural scheme of things. While everyone else has moved on to watching football and waxing their skis in anticipation, I'm still playing in the dirt. Gardening is my therapy, nay, my religion. Like a dermatologist with a skin rash, gardening is an occupational hazard for me. I garden therefore I am, or some such nonsense. I wear a baseball cap that says: "Gardening is LIFE; All the rest is just details."

I've been known to plant tulip and daffodil bulbs as late as January. One year I recall having to chop through a layer of snow and a 3-inch frozen crust of earth to make my way to softer soil below for bulb planting. I was bundled from head to toe in insulated everything--boots, coat and long johns. My cheeks were rosy and my fingers, sticking out of fingerless gloves, were freezing. (I'm a purist who never wears gardening gloves, unless it gets really cold. For those less optimum days, I purchase several pairs of cheap knit gloves that I cut the finger tips off of so that I can feel the earth and plant roots.)

The bulbs all came up that spring, none the worse for their late entry into the ground. But there I was again extending the gardening season way past when bulbs are supposed to be planted. Instead, I should have been nestled in front of the fireplace reading a good gardening catalog.

"To everything there is a season" or so the Bible verse goes, but not for gardening zealots. We are the ones who constantly push the envelope on planting seasons and hardiness zones. We keep the nurseries and greenhouses in business by having to try yet one more new plant in our crowded yards. We march off to every nursery in the valley to fill our cars with potted plants, only to return home to add our new booty to an ever-growing home nursery of unplanted specimens from the year before. We'll say "yes" to a free plant before a fellow gardener can even get the words out: "Would you like a start of ..." We're born optimists longing for an eternal spring.

In the olden days, one time honored method for determining whether it was time to plant corn in the spring was to drop your drawers and sit your keister down on the soil; if the soil felt warm to your tender hind end, then it was time to plant. Luckily, this practice is no longer in vogue because chances are gardening extremists all over the world would be dropping their drawers come spring. And "sitting out in the garden" would take on a whole new meaning.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail