Battles With Beth

THE REAL DIRT

July 05, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

As a gardener, I love raising plants. As a father, I love raising a family. Sometimes my passions collide, creating an awful mess. What is best for the garden is not always best for the family, and I am forced to choose between them.

These are trying times indeed.

For instance, the 40-foot silver maple tree in our back yard has got to go. The tree's canopy already shades much of the vegetable patch; its roots penetrate my best soil.

Besides, we've run out of firewood.

I have been lobbying for years to ax the tree. But at every turn I am met by one who is more determined to save it.

"You can't cut it down, Daddy!" says Beth, who is 10. "My swing is in that tree!"

She's right, of course. Beth's rope swing hangs from the fattest branch. She and the tree have grown up together. Once, Beth needed a stool to reach the swing. Now she sees it as a carnival ride on which she can either twist herself up and get hopelessly dizzy, or swing so high she pokes holes in the sky with her toes.

I try to reason with Beth. "Let me chop down the tree and I'll take you to King's Dominion," I say.

"Every day?" she asks sweetly. "I like to swing every day."

Damn. I'm losing again. I unleash my secret weapon.

I explain that the tree is destroying the vegetable patch, and that someday we will run out of food, and we will have to eat -- (deliberate pause) -- supermarket tomatoes.

Beth frowns in disgust. Ha! I'm winning again.

Alas, my success is shortlived.

"If you cut down the tree, you'll still have its roots in your garden. They wouldn't go away," Beth says. "And your plants may get sunburned. And what will happen to the birdies that eat all the bugs in your garden?"

Also, she says, shade from the tree helps to cool the house in summer.

"It saves you money, Daddy," she says.

I'm on the ropes, for sure, as Beth moves in for the KO.

She contends that the silver maple is our family tree, the one beneath which we have picnics and tell stories and play games.

"I read all my Nancy Drew books out here," she says.

On hot summer days, she plays with her doll house at the base of the tree. The knobby, raised roots, filled with water, make great swimming holes for the Barbie family. The peeling bark makes a rudimentary barn.

I gaze first at the garden, then at Beth. How does one choose between plant parenthood and fatherhood? My head votes for the chain saw; my heart, for the child.

The tree stays. Perhaps I'll just trim some branches.

I've made other gardening concessions for the sake of the family. Any earthworms I find while spading the garden are turned over to Beth the Scientist, who performs noble experiments, such as cutting the creatures in half to see if they form two worms.

She hung a clothesline between two branches of the apple tree, and I dare not spray the fruit on days when the dolls' laundry is drying.

While mowing the lawn, I've been told to swerve around blooming dandelions, wild violets and buttercups. Woe to him who fails to brake for buttercups.

A yew bush needs a haircut badly, but I am forbidden to trim the shrub until the baby robins move out of their nest there.

We're also wrangling over a 10-foot pussy willow, a gangly eyesore that ought to be removed. Beth disagrees. She likes "the fuzzy ends" of the pussy willow that look like "baby rabbits' feet."

So the pussy willow stays.

Perhaps you're wondering, What kind of gardener takes orders from his kid? I've been this way since that day last spring when I turned over my mother's garden.

As the rototiller purred through the soft, rich earth, I wondered why we'd had no garden here when I was a child.

Clonk. The tiller unearthed two tiny plastic soldiers and a tiny plastic tank. Though the figures were more than 30 years old, I knew them instantly as toys I'd played with as a child.

It struck me that Mom had sacrificed her garden for a play area for her children.

I figured I ought to pass on that legacy.

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