When my brother Max and I were teen-agers we used to borrow a neighbor's lawnmower, divide the Wylie yard into equal sections, and race each other to the finish. Our competition included general neatness along with clipping and trimming; it had, that is, rules. Later, in the "victory gardens" of World War I, we, who helped with the harvest, staged "picking races" down the interminable rows of peas and beans. Such creation of games out of essential work is common-place. Nevertheless, yard-tending and gardening hardly seem sporting to adolescents; and few adults regard a hoe as they do a No. 2 iron or a fly rod.
That is unfortunate since, in all likelihood, the care of immediate landscape is probably the largest outdoor activity of the greatest number of American males—whether it is undertaken for recreation, exercise, fun, or out of necessity. I would like to submit a brief in its defense, as a sport, even though I do not expect the editors of this magazine to open a department dedicated to yardmen. My hope is merely to overcome the slight sheepishness of commuters who carry home forsythia bushes in spring evenings—i.e., to point out to nongardeners that the man with the hoe is no sissy.
To begin with, the care of yards and gardens can be an exceedingly strenuous occupation. Just spraying my own hedges, shrubs and young trees in Florida, for example, requires about the same amount of walking as 18 holes of golf—and a great many times the muscular effort of arm and shoulder that would be involved in the many strokes of the worst dub. Yard owners in the northeastern states last autumn discovered a vigorous aspect of landscape-tending which we Floridians have always known about: clearing up after hurricanes. If the lawn debris involves fallen trees, furthermore, and these are sawed up for firewood, the operation can approximate the training activities of prize fighters.
Preparing the ground for the planting of a large shrub or medium tree can be fairly herculean. Digging with a shovel is a challenge to the muscles; when a pick is required, the work grows formidable. Huge sums are spent in gymnasiums by men seeking exercise when those two tools could furnish an abundance right at home. In the case of south Floridians, nearly all yards are underlain by limestone, which must be reamed out by hand to make a hole. Persons in Colorado, Connecticut and elsewhere, deal with boulders. On one occasion, when I excavated for a fair-sized water-lily pool, I contracted an ailment attesting these rigors. It is called "miner's elbow" and usually afflicts only hard-sweating gents underground—along with those Trojans of the streets who run jackhammers.
The ancillary jobs one does around the place can also be hazardous—qualifying them among the sports which are enlivened by bodily risk. Readers inclined to scoff at that statement are urged to spend a few days pruning the diseased upper limbs from trees a hundred feet or more in height. If that ordinary assignment is too much for their nerves, let them undertake the everyday gardener's job of clearing out a nest of hornets. The mere removal of a thicket of poisonwood can be a test of skill, coordination and concentration! And I once found that removing an extensive deposit of large rocks which had become a breeding place of rattlesnakes furnished the most consummate thrills.
Gardening and its attendant games are also more rule-ridden and hence demanding of exactitude than organized games. The person who doubts that need but to look into the regimen required by any single species of plant. A rosebush may grow on its own and even bloom; but the person who wants to be sure of roses becomes a technician as well as something of an athlete. Roses, however, are but one sort of plant; the well-gardened yard will have a hundred. Hence the man who plants and tends them has a headful of data that would shame a baseball fan or an amateur handicapper.
Beyond other sports and games, yardsmanship requires the oaken heart, the smile at defeat, the will to go on with the fight, which characterizes sportsmanship itself. For what gardener has not risen of a pearly morning to see the fruit of a year's strategic thinking and a summer's sinewy toil utterly destroyed—and in an eyewink—by army worms or blight? Here, then, is a sport in which your team may be more than beaten: it can be slaughtered, exterminated!
For such reasons, it is my feeling that gardening—a generic name for a number of taxing, risky, thrilling, body-building forms of recreation—deserves more than a simper from gentlemen who merely sit and watch people play ball—and more than a smirk from those who actually bat balls back and forth over tennis nets. The next time you see a commuter with a boxful of seedlings think twice before you consign him to the legion of henpecked weaklings. Think twice—then go feel his muscle!