Gardening and Karel Capek

I have been preparing my garden for me to be away in India for several weeks. We have arranged for a housesitter and our daughter will also check in on our plants and pets (2 dogs, 2 cats, and a bird) but other than “mow-and-blow” upkeep, no actual gardening will be done. I have put down weed cloth and mulch and trimmed and tidied and hope that all is in readiness.

We have about 1/4 acre of yard and garden (including 170 feet of the Guadalupe riverbank) and all the plants and trees have just woken up for Spring. My almond trees are in full bloom, the jessamine vine flowers are just opening, the orange, apricot, and peach are in bud and I have pots and beds of daffodils and narcissus cheerfully nodding in day’s warm breeze. The weeds and stray grass are working to colonize any bare ground; snails and slugs are always with us. My garden is still recovering from the long hard frost we had last month. There are sections of bougainvillea and trumpet vine and bird of paradise which are yellow brown. I am not sure yet whether these hardest-hit plants will sprout green soon or are as dead as they look. By the time we are back, I will know.

Karel Capek is most famous for having introduced and made popular the word robot, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1921. However, my favorite Karel Capek work is The Gardener’s Year from 1929. Here is Capek’s description of a dedicated gardener leaving on vacation:

[The amateur gardener] departs, however, with a heavy heart, full of fears and cares for his garden; and he will not go until he has found a friend or relation to whom he entrusts his garden for that time.

“Look here,” he says “there is nothing to be done now in the garden in any case; if you come and look once in three days, that will be quite enough, and if something here and there is not in order, you must write me a card, and I will come. So, I am relying on you then? As I said, five minutes will be enough, just a glance round.”

Then he leaves, having laid his garden upon the heart of an obliging fellow-creature. Next day the fellow-creature receives a letter: “I forgot to tell you that the garden must be watered every day, the best times for doing it are five in the morning and towards seven in the evening. It is practically nothing, you only fasten the hose to the hydrant and water for a few moments. Will you please water the conifers all over as they stand, and thoroughly, and the lawn as well? If you see any weeds, pull them out. That’s all.”

A day after: “It’s frightfully dry, will you give every rhododendron about two buckets of tepid water, and each conifer five buckets, and other trees about two buckets? The perennials, which are now in flower, ought to have a good deal of water — write by post what is in flower. Withered stalks must be cut off! It would be a good thing if you loosened all the beds with a hoe; the soil breathes much better then. If there are plant-lice on the roses, buy tobacco extract, and syringe them with it while the dew is on, or after a rain. Nothing else need be done at present.”

The sixth day: “I am sending you by express post a box of plants from the country…. They must go into the ground at once…. At night you ought to go into the garden with a lamp and destroy snails. It would be good to weed the paths. I hope that looking after my garden doesn’t take up much of your time, and that you are enjoying it.”

In the meantime the obliging fellow-creature, conscious of his responsibilities, waters, mows, tills, weeds, and wanders round with the box of seedlings looking where the devil he can plant them; he sweats, and is muddied all over; he notices with horror that here some damned plant is fading, and there some stalks are broken, and that the lawn has become rusty, and that the whole garden is somehow looking blasted, and he curses the moment when he took upon himself this burden, and he prays to Heaven for autumn to come.

And in the meantime the owner of the garden thinks with uneasiness of his flowers and lawns, sleeps badly, curses because the obliging fellow-creature is not sending him reports every day on the state of the garden, and he counts the days to his return, posting every other day a box of plants from the country and a letter with a dozen urgent commands. Finally he returns; still with the baggage in his hands he rushes into his garden and looks round with damp eyes —
“That laggard, that dolt, that pig,” he thinks bitterly, “he has made a mess of my garden!”
“Thank you”, he says dryly to his fellow-creature, and like a living reproach he snatches the hose to water the neglected garden. (That idiot, he thinks in the bottom of his heart, to trust him with anything! Never in my life will I be such a fool and an ass to go away for the holidays!)

While I am in the Garden City of Bangalore, I know I will enjoy being where I am (and not behave like Capek’s gardener!). I will visit the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens and maybe bring back new gardening ideas.

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