Karel Capek didn’t care much for growing vegetables. In “On Market Gardeners,” one of the short essays that comprise The Gardener’s Year, he addresses the readers’ imagined complaints that he only traffics in flowers.
“In reply to this charge I say that in one of the numerous phases of my life I also ruled over some beds of carrots and savoys, of lettuce and kohlrabi; I did it certainly out of a feeling of romanticism, wanting to indulge in the illusion of being a farmer,” Capek writes. “In due time it was obvious that I must crunch every day one hundred and twenty radishes, because nobody else in the house would eat them; the next day I was drowning in savoys, and then the orgies in kohlrabi followed, which were terribly stringy.”
A market gardener, huh? I guess that term fits, although I have to say…the decision to garden had less to do with Farmer Genie dreams, and more to do with a headlong crash into inevitability. I live in Iowa, therefore I garden.
Capek feels my particular pain. “Yes, only when he becomes a gardener does a man appreciate those threadbare sayings like ‘the bitter cold,’ ‘the merciless North wind,’ ‘the harsh frost,’ and other such poetic cursings, he even himself uses expressions still more poetic, saying that the cold this year is rotten, damned, devilish, cursed, beastly, and blasted; in contrast to the poets he does not only swear at the North wind, but also at the evil-minded East winds; and he curses the driving sleet less than the feline and insidious black frost,” he writes in “A Gardener’s March.”
Rotten. Damned. Devilish. Cursed. Beastly. Blasted. I might not have used any of those particular words, but I certainly used more tawdry synonyms. But the book was originally published in Czech in 1929, so I assume the approved language for book printing was a little more gardenesque and a little less barroom brawl.
But Capek sallies forward through the year, reminding all gardeners that the next month, April, is “the month for planting.” His essay examines the phenomenon of ordering a few too many plants.
OK, maybe more than a few.
“And so, one day, some hundred and seventy seedlings meet in your house, and they must be planted immediately; and then you look round in your garden and find with overwhelming certainty that you have no space left for them,” he writes in “A Gardener’s April.”
Capek didn’t have access to a computer, but for all intents and purposes, he wrote as if he were keeping a year-long blog, providing oblique insights into his own experience by presenting them in larger-than-life fashion. Every hose in Capek’s world is cranky and about to splash everyone around it. Every flower is a risky venture. Every season, fraught with danger of some sort or another, provides an opportunity to learn, again, that in the end, the gardener is at the mercy of a larger miracle.