January 24,2008

By Nick Routledge for the Observer Allotment Blog


A Cautionary Tale

Pause, if you will, to imagine the bittersweet scene. A grey sky. It is late winter sliding around on the foothills of early spring. Stage left, a puddle. Stage right, behind a cluster of Brassicas bravely fending off the seasonal slug assault, you, doubled over, wincing, eek, as you gently fork over-wintering carrots out of the sodden ground and, agh, what comes up with them but, ouch, ouch, ouch, gargantuan clods of wet earth...and the fluffy, friable, fertile tilth (“It was nothing more than clay and hardpan before I got to it, you know…”) you have given your soul in service to, clings now, horror of horrors, in sticky gelatinous clumps, the shame of it, to fork, fingers, and carrots, a cruel, yes, cruel mockery of the valiant defenses of the previous summers as you, heart-in-mouth, fended off – sorry, ‘alerted’ – those leaden-footed, tourista, non-gardener, fool-philistine-vandals (that’s not too strong a word for them, no) as they stepped not around, no, nor over, no, nor even beside your beds, but, how it hurts even now, on them. (Compaction! Compaction! Compaction! Most evil of words!) And as you rise now, carrots in hand - oh, pyrrhic victory! - looking skyward, you offer up the gravest horticultural incantation of all: “This is no time,” you intone, basso profundo, “to be working the soil."

The Cavalry Charge

An hour and a half later, boots off, feet up, mug of tea in hand, basking in the sunny prose of your favorite veggieseed catalog (“Extraordinary!” “Heavenly!” “Uniformly large and sweet!” “A real winner!”), it happens. The phone call. From a fellow gardener. The spring check-in. Hellos. Pleasantries. But quickly, to the real stuff: today’s salad plate; the winter’s accounting; the grim, shared reports and consolations for the plants that didn’t make it.

Then, the esoteric language deepens, announcing the unspoken acknowledgement of the not-so-casual drift toward the mysteries of the inner sanctum. Taking a cue, you sense a chance for a flourish. Letting loose a cavalry charge – at a trot, poised, at a canter, prosodic, and at a full-blown gallop, positively Platonic in perspicacity - your (utterly compelling) dissection of the Season As It Stands takes in tangential angles to the sun of the flight paths of migratory birds, the length of mole-hill shadows, damping off trends in the 3rd week of January for the past 20 years (note the emphatic underline: “I was looking through my notes…”) and more, every morsel paced perfectly to crescendo at your final, definitive distillation of the Horticultural State of the Union. “At this rate,” you solemnly assert, as modestly as infallibility affords, “it will be weeks before we get into the dirt.”

To which your friend replies: “Actually, I got my peas in a couple of days ago.”

A Cosmic Curveball

Now don’t get me wrong here. Yes, I know gardening is an altogether relaxing and ennobling affair. The books tell me that. But it is also, dammit man, not without its Shadow. And my acquaintance’s cosmic curveball shipwrecked our tete-a-tete on a treacherous shoal, unmarked on official maps, that lurks invisible, in the shallow waters of plant people niceties. To what exactly do I refer? Why, to the hidden epidemic, that pernicious pathology, the euphemistically titled “Horticultural Seasonal Affective Disorder” or “HSAD” (pron. “Huh! Sad!”)

Zurich-trained types recognize a symptom profile. Broad, varied, it includes but is by no means limited to:

  • An unshakeable sense of unease that one is not seeding as early or as often or as much as one should – related to the syndrome of “Manic Ambiguous Delight” (MAD) triggered when confronted by the largesse of seedswaps.
  • Certain twitchiness evidenced around the aisles of garden stores (aka “the seed rack tweaks”). Onset usually in February.
  • An allergic response (sulking) to news (hints of, even) that others, known or unknown are, where one is not, ‘on top of their seeding schedule' – as evidenced by a sinking feeling in the tummy-tum-tum when a fellow gardening competitor, agh, sorry, brother/sister in arms, announces that their peas are in when yours are not.
  • With every glance at your wall calendar, the verdict rings in your ears: “Guilty! Could do better!” The buds of May ain’t so darling. The cup is definitely half empty.
  • Glaring secondary symptoms including hiding your disease from those you live with – telling your partner you are ‘just stepping out to take out the compost and take in the evening air’ when, in actuality, you are slaking your addiction to checking out the phases of the moon.

Are any of these symptoms familiar to you? Are you, or is someone you know afflicted with HSAD? Don’t despair. Admitting your condition is half the battle won. You are not alone. Help is available. Support groups are forming. An emerging self-help literature outlining the latest in behavioral and cognitive therapies is leading the way in, if not placeboing the root HSAD oogies, at least providing some small measure of relief from its most pernicious affects.

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