Friday, June 2, 2023 Jun 2, 2023
83° F Dallas, TX


A hard row to hoe
By Bob Wilson |

THE CLOSEST I had ever been to a garden was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Garden of Verses. That is, until Ralph Rogers – formidable city father, chairman of many boards and the prime mover at Texas Industries, Channel 13 and Parkland Hospital (his tenure there is covered earlier in this issue)-agreed to sell me his house. I soon learned that I was buying not a house, but the horticultural equivalent of Faneuil Hall – a blooming, fertile monument to a man of force, vision and awesome determination.

About six years ago, Mr. Rogers, who has a history of finishing what he begins, began to garden. And, in his fashion, he did not go to Nicholson-Hardie Seed Store on Saturday mornings to read the backs of Burpee packages. He went to the top-Texas A&M and the late Jim Crockett of public television’s Crockett’s Victory Garden. His dream was not our dream – a few tomato plants, petunias and pansies. This was to be gardening against the grain – blueberries in Texas, French strawberries, umpteen varieties of roses and enough fig trees to make Fig Newton himself worry. The goal: a garden fecund beyond the imagination.

I made a sign for his barn that read: “Strait Acres. Home of the World’s Most Carefully Managed Vegetables.” We all had a good chuckle. Except Mr. Rogers, who put the sign up and began to produce exactly that-The World’s Most Carefully Managed Vegetables, and flowers as well.

He constructed two greenhouses with automatic misting devices to produce the right level of humidity. One was a large greenhouse, perfect for a family of agronomists; the other was modest in size, but only by comparison. There were ducts everywhere for air conditioners and heaters. As Mr. Rogers said: “When the weather turns bad, just move everything in here for the winter. You won’t miss a beat.”

There is, as I’m finding out too late, an inescapable Sisyphian quality to gardening on this scale. (Remember Sisyphus? The dictionary says he was “the shrewd king of Corinth who was doomed forever in Hades to roll uphill a heavy stone which always rolled down again.”) It can be hell even for a person who actually plans his work and works his plan – something my father has always urged me, in vain, to do. It can be worse for a person who makes the mistake of hoping for the best. For this, my friends, is the varsity, and you have to train for it.

I remembered the scene in Godfather II when Marlon Brando keeled over in his tomato patch. After tackling Mr. Rogers’ garden, I understood for the first time that it wasn’t old age that did Brando in. It was tension. Here I was, buying what I thought would be a great house for my family. Instead of anticipating pleasures, I began to sense foreboding; in my dreams I began to see aphids for which no pesticides were known, discolorations, exposés similar to that annual newspaper story in which someone has been arrested for the starving condition of his horses. Only this time, I was the target in an article comparing the glories of the Rogers era to the mismanagement of mine. I began to have other dreams in which Mr. Rogers would walk through the gardens on sunny Saturday mornings, tears in his eyes.

But I haven’t mentioned the row of mulch bins. Mr. Rogers said, “Use everything-don’t throw anything away. Go ahead, stick your hand in.” And I did. “Feel the heat? That’s all the decomposing. That mulch will grow anything.” Except happiness, I thought, as I imagined carefully going through my trash to make sure I wasted nothing.

The yard itself is divided in half by a curving wall. Beyond the wall are the gardens. A friend from Manhattan used a marathon analogy: “Everything is fine until you hit the goddamn wall.”

Mr. Rogers introduced me to the man who worked on the gardens full time. The man began to talk about their history and the work that had gone into them, the pride he took and the glories yet to be. It was like a first date, when the father talks about his daughter in terms that underscore your obvious inferiority.

This month I take possession. Legally.But it is I who is possessed. Mr. Rogers hasdeparted for Maine until October. In hiswake, he left 39 videotapes of Crockett’sVictory Garden, a library of books anda cold fear in my heart. He’ll return inOctober to administer my first examination.