Focus On Past Gardens

THE REAL DIRT

January 22, 1995|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The dogeared photograph shows a barefoot boy standing in the back yard, beaming over his new-found treasure: a ripe tomato. The size of the fruit is dwarfed by the grin on the boy's face. Why the big smile for such a small tomato? It's the first one he ever grew.

The boy was real proud of that tomato. He named it Gus, after Gus Triandos, a catcher for the Baltimore Orioles and his baseball hero. For several days he carried Gus around the house, placing it on tables and desks and his mother's ironing board, where folks would see it and say, "My goodness, what a wonderful tomato and aren't you a clever boy for raising such a thing?"

The boy's smile got broader still. He puffed out his chest until he thought he would burst. Alas, the tomato beat him to it. One day it rolled off the ironing board and onto the floor, where it splattered. Gus was gone, just like that. All that remained was the photo, which the boy placed atop his dresser.

But dresser tops are where boys go to empty their pockets, so in time the picture disappeared beneath a pile of pennies, rocks and baseball cards. Th boy forgot about his first tomato. For 35 years. Until he opened his Christmas gift.

There, staring back at him, was the snapshot of Gus and friend.

The boy's mother had saved it. Moms do that. As their sons grow up, mothers throw out boxes of baseball cards and rock-and-roll records -- but not photographs.

Gus' legacy survived. The picture had been arranged in an HTC album with other old photos of the boy and his garden. On Christmas morning, as he leafed through the pages of his past, memories came flooding back.

Back then, filled with a heady optimism, the boy thought anything he planted would grow. Silly boy. See the photo results of the Great Popcorn Test: three skinny ears, each with four kernels of corn spaced several inches apart. The boy seems unperturbed by the meager harvest. In the picture, he's pretending to nibble on the corncobs, as though finishing them off.

Some of the photos have a chronology of their own. One photo shows the boy watering his plants with a garden hose; another one has him spraying his brother -- an accident, of course.

Here he is planting an ornamental pear tree beside the house. The next shot, taken years later, shows the tree having crashed through the roof in a storm.

One picture shows a blubbering toddler, upset at having squashed an ant. Beside it is a later photo of the boy smashing beetle grubs barehanded.

Here's a shot of him planting a row of young forsythias, followed by one of him ripping out the same unwieldy shrubs years later. It took him one day to plant the bushes and a month to dig them up.

The boy learned from his gardening goofs, perhaps because they were preserved on film. That's him operating a rototiller for the first time, turning the soil for a vegetable bed. The ground was too wet to dig. Both boy and machine are covered in mud. The garden took a year to recover; the boy caught heck for tracking grime through the house.

But he stuck with gardening, though nature mocked him at times. In one photo, a pale boy on the mend stands stiffly beside a small cedar that had recently caused him great pain. While playing football in the yard, the boy had tripped over the shrub and broken his leg.

There's a close-up of his left sneaker, mangled by a machine during a lawn-mowing mishap. Though the shoe was on his foot at the time, the boy escaped with minor cuts.

Here's an early look at Guns N Roses: A 10-year-old, dressed in cowboy hat and boots and toting two six-guns, standing beside his favorite rosebush, which is thick with sweet red blossoms.

In another picture, he's playing with toy soldiers in the shade of a large wild cherry tree. War games lasted for hours; casualties were buried with full honors. Years later, after the tree died and was replaced by a garden, the plastic soldiers continued to pop out of the ground like some long-dormant plant roots.

When that happened, the boy (now a man) would wash off the figures and place them on his dresser, where they gradually disappeared beneath an avalanche of bills and pay stubs. But he's sure they will reappear someday. After all, Gus did.

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