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November 19, 2003
Q was in the back, gilding the compost pile -- a shipment of horse manure and a dump of leaves encouraged him to bag all the rich black gold in the pile from the summer and set out new layers in which the worms could do their work over the winter. From time to time he trundled out front with more compost, to set against the roots of roses and butterfly bushes. There are eight or nine miniature roses from a florist's basket in the ground out front, hoping to winter over successfully under a blanket of compost and leaves. Don't let them freeze, it said on the label, and they'll bloom again next year. We shall see. Compost is warm. We'll see if it's warm enough, once the air all around it is frozen.

I was in the front hunting dahlia tubers. There is a distinct thrill to bringing them up out of the ground to spend the cold months inside. Finding them is the first task: their stiff cutoff stems protrude from the ground like antlers. You scan the ground and spy a pair of dry stalks -- aha! Then you dig around the base to loosen the tuber, give a tug and up it comes, a fat potato-looking thing, from which smaller potato-looking things dangle by the filaments that attach them to the mother bulb. A dahlia tuber looks like something Hieronymous Bosh would have drawn. That it will grow into a tall, stiff stem topped by a flower as intricate as a burst of fireworks seems wildly unlikely. But that's what happens.

I think I got them all. As I poked through the garden and located each one, I remembered what it looked like in high summer: this one was purple, and this one was red. These were pink, fully eight inches across. I got sick of the pink ones in the end: you no longer want much to do with pastels in the late summer. You want intense colors: the yellow was wonderful -- it was called "Floodlight" -- and the deep orange. I shook the dirt off them and lay them side by side in flat plastic trays. I covered them with sand. Now they're down in the basement, where it's warm enough for them to spend the winter. I have another dozen or so to hunt over at Corinna' house, and then that will be that. I, for one, am sorry hunting season is over.

Just a few dozen tulips and I'm done. I didn't get the irises divided and moved. Again. Didn't do it last year, either. The weather is so mild I'm toying with the idea of doing it now; I predict, though, that another year will pass with irises not divided. There seems always to be one uncompleted task, one flaw in the plan, an untasted cup of wine at the corner of the garden's Passover table.

The sleep of the garden looks like the sleep of death. We prepare extensively for the sleep, but we're never ready for it. Once the cold plasters leaf and stem against the ground, our work is done. We can do no more. The God of leaf and stem takes it all from there.


Want to see what dahlia tubers look like?

Want to see what Hieronymous Bosch did draw?
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