Thou Shall Not Covet

A gardener’s special sin.

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One of the Biblical Ten Commandments admonishes us not to covet our neighbor’s house/wife/man- or maid-servant/ox or ass, in that order. It’s interesting that the house precedes the wife in desirability, and indeed, as a wife, I feel like writing a complaining letter to somebody. (Is there a Department of Covetous Complaints, I wonder?) But most interesting to me is that my neighbor’s garden isn’t mentioned.

Now I have no trouble not coveting a house, a wife (or husband), a man- or maidservant (more about this later), or an ox or an ass (though I did once have an adorable donkey). But my neighbor’s garden? Guilty, your Honor.

Green is the color of a green thumb—but also the complexion of a jealous gardener.

I’m afraid horticultural covetousness might be an integral part of gardening. After all, green is the color of a green thumb—but it’s also the complexion of a jealous gardener. Though my son repeatedly admonishes me that “It’s not a competition, Mother,” how can I not envy my neighbor’s immaculate lawn, woods, and flowerbeds? No need to mention that she spends most of every day on her knees weeding, and that she shares her home with a delightful man who is a skilled handyman as well as a wonderful gardener. And, no, Mike would not want to be called a manservant, so I can (and do) covet her horticultural helper without blame. Even if I go over to have tea with her, she often holds a cup in one hand and plucks weeds with the other. Her garden is breathtakingly beautiful. I come back from visiting her to contemplate my own, kindly called, wild garden. It might be better if I did some weeding instead of sitting down with my cup of tea, but it’s all so upsetting.

I am actually in good (or bad) company. One reads of Louis XIV’s Finance Minister, Fouquet, who created a magnificent garden with the help of the famous garden designer Le Nôtre at his estate of Le Vaux. It was lush with fountains, lawns, and shrubberies—just the place for a fête. Indeed, in 1661, Fouquet had the bad judgment to hold a fête in honor of the wife of the Duke of Orléans—the king’s brother-in-law. The festivities even included a play by Molière. The result? Poor Fouquet found himself in prison, while the king, with the help of Le Nôtre, made the great gardens of Versailles with bigger and better fountains, lawns, allées, etc., and grassy theaters where plays by Molière were performed. There was also a little temple called the Traianon which, reported a French paper in 1686, gave “all private persons the wish to have something of the same kind and almost all Lords…had one built in the park.”

Another famous garden, Hampton Court in London, shares a similar story. The original garden was made by Henry VIII’s minister, Cardinal Wolsey. He (in 1516) invited the king to ad-mire his garden and enjoy a masquerade. When the king asked, “Why should a subject build such a gorgeous place?”, Wolsey, quick on his feet, replied that it was “to give it to his master.” The king did get Hampton Court (which remains a fabulous garden, now open to the public), but Wolsey, alas, fell from favor.

These days we gardeners are actually encouraged to be competitive and covetous. Bigger and better flowers are constantly being bred so we can wow our neighbors. Competitions to grow the largest vegetable, from pumpkins to carrots, fill the papers. Any spring catalog tells you what is NEW—whoever raises it will be in the vanguard of garden success and the envy of the neighbors. With a little luck, we hope, and some skill, someone will covet our garden…

But they may not love us for it. Yes, we should love our neighbor, but perhaps it’s hard when he is clearly horticulturally superior to us. Beverly Nichols wrote, in Down the Garden Path, about a gardener he calls “Mrs. M,” who “spends next to nothing and gets astonishing results. I have tried to catch her garden off its guard,” he complains, but “I always seem to arrive at the crowning hour of something…I have a feeling that as the car drives up to the door the stocks blaze…The first rosebud sheds its virginity…Things are always at their best…Perhaps if I stayed a little longer I might detect a weariness among the lilies. But I can never stay long as she annoys me too much.”

Well, as you see, it doesn’t look good for us gardeners as far as getting into the Great Garden in the Sky, although we never were told in so many words not to long for another garden. Instead, I envision standing by the pearly gates (along with Kings Henry and Louis) in some kind of annex that shows the garden I can’t have, however much I long for it! It would serve me right.

So I’ve decided to be a nicer person. I’ll start by taking my neighbor a gift basket of plants from my own garden. They are very pretty and I seem to have a lot of them. I’m sure they aren’t really invasive…

This article was published originally in 2017, in GreenPrints Issue #111.


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