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Tree's a Crowd (NY Times)

Op-Ed Sampler

The Garden Ate My Vacation

AS SUMMER approaches, I've decided I should take a French-style summer vacation this year. French vacations (at least as far as I can tell from French movies) seem so much more rewarding than ours. Come the first of August, everyone leaves their BlackBerries behind and flees to la mer - for the entire month, as if they were all psychiatrists - where they eat glistening oysters, lose their virginity and reunite with lost lovers, all while actress Ludivine Sagnier romps topless in the surf. This seems vastly preferable to the Hollywood version of summer vacation, where you either get eaten by a great white shark or face a serial killer at summer camp.

This plan for my vacance fran├žaise is, of course, a fantasy. But not because it's too late to lose my virginity (to spare my kids further embarrassment I won't say exactly how many years too late), and not because my wife might frown at the idea of her husband playing Marco Polo in the waves with Ludivine. No, the main reason is, I simply can't take an extended summer vacation - and any vacation at all in August. Not this year. Not any year.

For I have a garden. And just on the outside chance that I manage to defeat the insects, fungi, groundhogs, deer and drought, and find myself in a position to actually harvest something, I need to be here for it.

This isn't mere hyperbole or even obsession. Two years ago my wife and I decided that such slavish devotion to our garden was silly, and we went to Spain in June. Surely the garden could survive two weeks without us. Well, we returned home to find that the electric fence had shorted out, and deer had eaten every single thing, save the sundial, to the ground. "No more vacations!" my wife and I swore in unison, contemplating a depressing summer without garden tomatoes, corn, beans, or flowers. "Deer eat mint?" my son exclaimed, staring at a patch of stubble in what used to be the herb garden.

Thus having learned our lesson, we stay home for summer. Secretly though, this is a bit of a relief to me, as summers have never lived up to expectations anyway. Disappointment started early in life, primed by my mother reading "One Morning in Maine" to me every night (at my insistence) for about six months straight. How could my childhood summers in a New York suburb possibly live up to Sal's idyllic life in Maine, digging clams with her father, picking wild blueberries, walking on deserted beaches - hey, is that Ludivine in the water - sorry, where was I?

Oh, vacations. I have never abandoned this romantic, unreachable vision of summer. Shouldn't we be spending the entire season in some remote place with close friends and family, children playing together in the sand, everyone eating lots of lobster and playing Scrabble late into the evening? Instead, we snatch a week here or there, (never with others), at one place or another, and spend most of our "leisure" time in the garden.

A summer garden may sound as idyllic as Sal's Maine: picking flowers for the house, bringing in fresh heirloom tomatoes for lunch. We do love it. But there are also beds to weed and fillet beans (French, naturellement) to pick in the 12 hour window before they go from delicate to stringy. Idyllic? Restful? Hardly, but I can't complain; I do this, after all, by choice. Or by habit.

Last summer I watched a groundhog who'd gotten trapped in the garden. Having somehow penetrated the 10,000-volt electric fence, he couldn't find a way out. The fence, designed to be a fortress to keep critters out, had turned the garden into a prison. He scurried from side to side, looking in vain for an opening.

I switched off the electricity. The groundhog was free to leave, but didn't realize it, so he just sat, looking confused and depressed. I settled onto a bench at the far end to guard my tomatoes, and for what seemed an eternity we both sat trapped, the groundhog yearning for the safety of his lair, and me dreaming, once again, of . . . la mer.