About this time of year, every year, I’m assailed by a dreadful and debilitating condition. Enterprising therapists might diagnose it as hortophobia, but we know it more commonly as fear of gardening failure. It is a disorder of the mind marked by a generalized unease that things are somehow bound to go terribly wrong during the upcoming gardening season. It’s not a fear of one specific thing, like arachnophobia, but more of a diffuse anxiety that disaster of some generalized sort awaits us.
The symptoms are manifold. Take the simple matter of seeds, for example. There’s no end of worrying one can do over seeds. Perhaps they haven’t arrived yet, provoking a fear that you put your order in too late, that the seed-house is bankrupt, that your package is lost in the strife-ridden bowels of Canada Post. When they do finally arrive, you switch over to worrying that you ordered the wrong varieties or that you didn’t order enough.
Planting can become an orgy of anxiety. Is it too early? Too late? Why haven’t they germinated yet? Have I watered them too much? Too little perhaps? Is my starting mix alright? The condition worsening by the day, the gardener begins practising strange fetishistic rituals, frequently involving a mister. Finally the little pipsqueaks poke their tentative noses above ground and you begin fretting about damping-off.
Throughout this nerve-jangling period the gardener is beset by peculiar superstitions. She becomes convinced at one point that the seed-house has treacherously shipped infertile seeds. That mice have been sneaking in to steal seeds from the trays. Perfectly innocent slugs and sowbugs get accused of malevolent activities that have somehow contributed to germination failure.
But all of these worries are mere preliminaries to the full onslaught. Hortophobia in its most developed forms doesn’t content itself with the fate of a particular flat of insignificant seedlings, nor confine itself to an irrational apprehension of what the weather’s doing to the pelargoniums.
No, in its full-blown manifestations the disease undermines one’s very faith in oneself as a gardener. The garden’s all wrong, you conclude, completely, irretrievably wrong. You begin to doubt the integrity of its design, your ability to improve it, your fitness to call yourself a gardener at all. It’s been said that the difference between failure and success is doing a thing nearly right and doing it exactly right. You have come to the appalling conclusion that your garden is not now, and never will be, exactly right.
This is the dark night of the gardener’s soul. A profound conviction that one is fundamentally incapable, that you have been fooling yourself with pretensions towards becoming a gardener, pretensions that you know in your heart-of-hearts to be ridiculous.
You have reached the nadir of a gardening career, touching the bottom of the deep pit of despair. It is from this dark hole that one must begin the long climb back towards the light of self-respect and gardening success, towards the wisdom that grows only from failure.
Therapists tell us that the first crucial step involves an open confession of your plight. There is no need for shame or concealment; you have nothing left to hide. Speak to your fears openly and honestly. In doing so, you discover a wonderful thing happening: astonishingly, you find that you are not alone, that others have suffered through this same debilitating experience and emerged from it wiser and stronger than before.
There are other painful steps still to take, of course, steps in which you’ll work your way through denial, blame, anger and all the rest. No matter: you have begun. The dam is burst.
Tears flow at this point. Much hugging ensues. Your family rallies around you. At last you’re on your way back, the comeback kid, letting go of anxieties and perplexities, getting free of fear at last. You are a recovering hortophobic.
That’s one approach anyway. W.C. Fields proposed another: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”