Ruth Bass: Patience: A virtue in gardening



Never mind the hoe, rake, trowel or twine -- the main thing a gardener needs is patience. Having a garden is not the route to instant gratification.

While the gratifications are many, trotting along one after the other for weeks, it's a waiting game, over and over. The seed catalogs come, and you order with anticipation, then wait for the shipment.

The small cardboard box is likely to arrive on a March day when the wind is howling and the snow is piling up. It's an optimism pill, but you must put it aside.

The vagaries of Berkshire Aprils require more patience. It does little good to jump the gun and put helpless seeds into cold earth, tempting though it may be.

So you wait some more and one day, it's time to dig holes for potatoes, push onion plants into the ground and cheat a little by purchasing a few three-inch lettuce plants.

A watched garden, it seems, never sprouts. The radish seed packet says they might show up in three days, but that can't possibly be true.

Gardening patience dictates that you never poke around to see if the eye of the potato is moving toward the surface or the pink pea seed has sprouted a little hook of green. No nosy fingers allowed.

Even seed companies know gardeners get a little antsy about the lack of action above ground. On a packet of carrot seeds from Seedsavers Exchange, the text cautions that carrots require patience, being generally erratic about sprouting and unlikely to all come up at once. (In our experience, sometimes they don't appear at all, and we blame it on heavy clay soil and wish they had more sprouting oomph.)

After things come up, you wait some more, but sometimes too much patience backfires. We stopped planting corn because we would wait until the exactly right day to pick it, and marauding skunks or raccoons would strip it the night before -- while we slept, dreaming of yellow and white kernels of sweetness to come.


When Memorial Day (the original May 30) arrives, so does a spell of instant gratification. That's the safe date for planting frost-susceptible tomatoes, and they are real -- not pellets or seeds.

Plus, we again cheat and plant a couple of oversized ones that are already blooming. At least we won't wait long for the excitement of finding a few tiny green orbs.

One of the most satisfactory vegetables for the impatient gardener is the onion. Whether plants or sets, the green appears quickly and the garden stops looking like a brown rug.

But there's still a lot of waiting to do -- and wondering. Will the peas meet their Fourth of July deadline? You'd think 21 2 months would be long enough for seven peas to fill out a pod. Will the peppers bloom or just turn into gorgeous plants with nothing to stuff? Will mice or rabbits try a salad or two at our expense? Who knows?

And then there's the waiting for rain. Or sun. One of the things every backyard gardener shares with the farmers of the world is the constant wish for a different kind of weather. Right now, it's too dry, and the seeds are hibernating. We're waiting for rain.

But we're careful what we wish for. One year, after an arid spring, the July deluge created canyons in our garden, rotted the potatoes and wrecked the tomatoes. So we wait -- for sprouting plants, for rain, for sun.

And soon, like our rural forebears, we'll just eat what's there, even if it's peas every day this week, beans every day next week. And we'll impatiently wreak havoc with the weeds.

Ruth Bass gardens on a hillside in Richmond. Her website is


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