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Six: The Seven Deadly Sins
Raised as I was in a staunchly religious Irish Catholic family, and having had the Church’s eternal options of redemption and damnation polished to a gleaming luminosity by spending eight years as a seminarian with the hellfire-preaching Passionist Fathers, I retain, these many decades later, some lingering affinity with moral rectitude. As a youth, each day would conclude with an examination of conscience whereby any transgression, impiety or evil deed I’d committed in the course of the day would be identified and forgiveness would be sought from above before surrendering to a sleep from which I might never awaken. Saturday invariably entailed a trip to the confessional where I knelt in the dark enclosure and whispered my sins to the listening priest, was perhaps cross-examined on any salacious bits and was eventually absolved and released with a firm, if slightly unrealistic, purpose to go and sin no more.
That once firm bedrock of confession and absolution has become much eroded with the passage of time, but not sufficiently to dissuade me from proposing a contemplation of the Seven Deadly Sins of Gardening and the possibilities of redemption to be found in their corresponding Seven Contrary Virtues.
We begin straight away with the first, and arguably worst, of the seven deadly sins,
the sin from which the other six in this vile litter spring. Namely, the sin of Pride. Yes, pride, vanity, the high or overweaning opinion of one’s own qualities, attainments or estate. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
But right from the outset we run into a considerable difficulty in trying to distinguish what is truly loathsome pride from what is simple acceptance of reality. Because, actually, one’s own garden is undeniably superior to almost every other that one encounters. The awkward but inescapable truth remains that one is in fact a far more accomplished gardener than most other people, though, needless to say, a bit of discretion is called for in not trumpeting this obvious fact too loudly. No, here we’re not talking about the self-satisfaction of genuinely superior gardeners, such as myself and almost certainly you, dear reader, but rather an arrogant minority that flaunts itself in a most disagreeable way.
“Yes, we’re really rather pleased,” the prideful gardener announces while showing you around her estate. “Now, just look over thereyou’ll notice how the Scabiosa caucasica ‘Clive Greaves’, the Lavendula spica, the Clematis ascotiensis and the Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’ are all muted violet or purple blues, their colour enhanced by grey Santolina beneath them and the grey hardscape beyond.” You might not have noticed any of this if she hadn’t pointed it out, but you never have to worry about prideful gardeners being stuck for something to say. They’ve always got something to say, and it’s always about themselves or their wonderful gardens. “Isn’t that just the most charming little Erigeron mucrantus you’ve ever laid eyes on?” they’ll exclaim, “And do come see my Helianthemum ‘Wisely Pink’–it’s by far the grandest specimen you’re likely to ever encounter.” These braggarts have always got the choicest varieties of everything, in the cleverest combinations and shown to best effect.
But the real problem here is, annoyingly, it’s often true: As much as you hate to admit it, their gardens are splendid, perfect, impeccable. Their Agapanthus are pantingly blue and beautiful, picking up the metallic blue pods hanging between elegant green leaves of a Decaisnea fargesii. Their foliage frameworks are magnificent, their colour plans extraordinary. And it’s for that very reason that you never, ever want to invite them over to see your garden. They glance around your yard with an expression of utter dismay. “Ah, yes, well,” they say, “you’ve made a very brave start, haven’t you? You must have the heart of a lion to tackle a place like this.” They obviously weren’t paying attention when you told them you’d been gardening here for twenty years. “But look, once you get rid of all this garish clutter,” they dismiss your prized perennial bed with a wave, “You’ll have room to bring in some really interesting plants, won’t you?” Left unchecked, their vanity spills over into outright arrogance. “Oh, good Lord!” they’ll exclaim, “surely you’re not allowing that dreadful Fatsia japonica to stay there? No, as much as it hurts me to say it, it’s all wrong–this unfortunate Euphorbia with the Griselinia and Hypericum–no, I’m sorry, I just can’t bear to look at it!”
Beneath these outbursts the message is always the same: My garden is better than your garden, and the reason for that is I know more about gardening than you do. And I can demonstrate as much by dazzling you with my knowledge of botanical Latin. You may think that’s a fennel plant you’ve got over there, but I would never call it by any other name than Foeniculum vulgare. And, rratherrrrrr than saying something like ‘TToad Lily,’ which sounds so disagreeably inelegant, I far prefer to say Trycirtis formosan. And really, I ask you, how could anyone employ a vulgarism like Russian sage when one really means Perovskia atriplicifolia? The whole time you’re biting your tongue to keep from saying that you yourself prefer to call Saxifraga erbium by its common name: London Pride. Or, even more cattily, to quote scripture at them: ‘Pride goeth before a fall.”