Gardening From On High

THE REAL DIRT

October 09, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I'm afraid of heights. My lifestyle reflects this: I live in a one-story house, vacation at sea level and avoid carnival rides.

Perhaps that's why I dig gardening so much. Gardeners stay close to the soil. We cozy up to the land. We worship the ground that we work on.

However, my fear of heights does affect my plant selections. For instance, I'm no fan of vertical gardening (raising plants on a trellis). A number of my plants -- from ground covers to vining crops -- grow horizontally. My fruit trees are mostly dwarf varieties, so that I can prune them without climbing a ladder.

Plant my feet on Mother Earth and never let me go.

Except when I have to clean the chimney.

I don't like to clean the chimney. Not because it is dirty, dark and dingy -- so is the barn where I get farm manure. However, the barn is on the ground. Cleaning the chimney requires that I clamber onto the roof, 20 feet in the air.

Twenty feet? It might as well be the moon.

Alas, I haven't a choice. Fall is here, and the smokestack is sooty. So I muster my courage, climb the ladder and step tentatively onto the tiled roof.

I feel like Neil Armstrong.

Have you ever stood on a slanted roof? Neither have I. It's all I can do to crawl to the edge, wrap my arms around the chimney and squeeze real hard. After awhile, if no soot squirts out, I try Plan B: I scrub the inside of the chimney with a wire brush attached to a long metal pole. This is no easy task when one's eyes are closed.

The next 15 minutes are spent pushing the pole down the chimney with one hand while hugging the brickwork with the other.

Finally the job is done, and I retrace my path along the roof, until I reach the . . .

Uh-oh. The ladder is gone. I look down. It's on the ground.

Egad, I'm marooned on the moon.

I waste no time calling in distress.

"Hello down there."

No answer.

"Can anyone hear me?"

Silence.

"Help!"

At last, my cries bring assistance. Katydid the dog saunters over, sniffs the ladder and lies down beside it. Lassie, she's not.

Nobody else is home.

For one-half hour I sit on the roof, too paralyzed to move. What else can I do? Gazing at the garden helps pass the time, and calm my fears.

In fact, I begin to analyze the landscape from above.

Have you ever had a bird's-eye glimpse of your yard? It looks mighty small from the roof, not unlike a model train garden. Shrubs resemble perennial plants; trees look like shrubs. Most weeds aren't visible from such lofty heights, nor are the insects that inhabit the garden. Hungry birds must have better eyes than I.

Yard projects that actually take weeks to finish seem a cinch to complete -- from the roof. The asparagus bed looks so small, I could dig a new trench in a flash. The old compost pile in disrepair could be done after dinner, along with the last 40 feet of the half-finished flagstone walkway.

Perched atop the house, I find myself making endless plans for the garden, shifting flowers, shrubs and trees around as easily as if they were toothpicks. In reality, of course, it's hardly a snap.

Here's a thought: I can climb up here next spring and direct these chores from the roof, while my wife carries out all the tasks.

Perhaps I'll even make a rooftop garden, free of those pesky tree roots that plague my vegetable bed. I once met a man in Rehoboth Beach, Del., who raised tomatoes on the roof of his house. With a few sticks of lumber and a few loads of dirt, he created a raised bed that received plenty of sunshine while attracting very few pests. The bugs never caught on.

It's kind of a kick, sitting here on the roof. I'm almost enjoying it. . . .

"Dad? Are you up there?"

My thoughts are interrupted by a child's raucous laughter. Then the ladder comes up, and I climb down. The family gathers 'round as I recount my story. I tell all, including the part about how I nearly slid off the roof, dangling from the downspout until I summoned all my strength and pulled myself back up to safety.

No one believes me but the dog, who licks my face. Then the group breaks up and I go into the back yard to pick apples. From the ground, of course.

Terra firma feels mighty good.

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