It was at the end of a long day. They had been on location in Manassas, Virginia, doing a show on the restoration of an Early American garden near the Occoquan River. Their attire was an echo of colonial life: Louise in a flowing mauve skirt and lace-edged blouse; and John Batchelder, her cohost, in a loose-fitting poetic shirt that emphasized John's dashing looks. When they were finished there, Marty Corbin had insisted they return to the station to discuss program ideas for Gardening with Nature.
The producer was large, with dark, curly hair, shaggy eyebrows, and big brown eyes that most of the time were filled with life, fire, and kindliness. Sitting in Marty's office for one of his typical "powwows," he outlined to them an ambitious travel schedule that threw Louise into a profound silence.
Marty described his ideas with dramatic gestures of his big hands: "We're not gonna be one of these garden programs that think the East Coast, with its rich, acidic soil, is all there is. We're gonna travel,
Louise, and we're not going to leave out one growing zone. We're even going to Hawaii and Alaska, how'dja like that? We want all fifty states to watch your program, not just the thirteen original."
John Batchelder, slouched in a chair opposite hers, smiled and nodded approval. "It's high time we did it, Marty."
She didn't know what to say. The Eldridge home life had already been seriously impinged upon by her full-time job and her extra voice-over work with Atlas Mowers. How much more away-time could her family handle?
Marty read her expression. "Think of it this way, Louise: at least it will discourage houseguests." He grinned at her, anxious to have her happy.
It seemed a propitious time to ask him
a favor in return. She quickly laid out her proposal for a two-part program on the President's environmental bill, making it sound as if the idea came from her.
"You're kiddin'." His eyebrows skidded down over his skeptical eyes.
"Why would I be kidding? I am quite serious, Marty. The bill just got through Congress. It's timely, and the topic merits it."
He hooted. "Timely, all right: just in time for the November vote. Hey, I know you have a pipeline to the President. Don't tell me this
show is going to save Fairchild's ass: That man's down the tubes, Louise; hate to tell you."
She saw he was hungry and impatient, ready to go home to one of his wife Steffi's fabulous meals. "Okay, but can we talk about it again?"
"Sure we can, when my stomach isn't protesting." They left Marty's office, and the staff drifted off.
When she gathered her things and walked to the lobby exit, a stranger was waiting, smiling at her. It took her a moment to recognize the man, and when she did, her heart began to pound. For an instant, she was swept back to her college days and a romantic interlude in Washington, D.C.
"It couldn't be. Not Jay McCormick."
"Oh, yes, it could be," said the voice, a familiar, jesting baritone.
Tall and slightly stoop-shouldered, he approached her slowly. He came right up and took both her hands in his and gave her one of his crooked Irish smiles. He planted the faintest of kisses on her lips, and it made her tingle.
"Louise, you dear thing, you haven't changed at all."
Standing before her was her former boyfriend from that brief summer more than two decades ago when they were both graduate students at Georgetown University. His face was unremarkable, with an anonymity that made you wonder, once he was out of your presence, what he really looked like. No high cheekbones or other defining features; sandy, nondescript hair that tended to fall in his face. Pale blue eyes: again, unremarkable. And yet, a man with an inner light, who could make her heart beat faster simply because he cared more about other human beings than he cared about himself.
That quality had nearly persuaded her to commit herself to Jay McCormick, to go forward into life like a team of missionaries and try to make the world better for suffering people. Then, through a fluke, along came Bill Eldridge from Harvard to the same campus to substitute for another lecturer at Georgetown's International Institute; she turned onto another path with a man who soon became a spy for his country.
"Outside of the glasses, you haven't changed, either, Jay." But even as she spoke, she saw the worry lines in his face: What kind of disappointments had he suffered during the past two decades? He looked to be on hard times: His dress shirt and pants were scruffy.
"Look a little closer, Louise. I'm having one hell of a hard time right now. I came here today because I sort of need a friend. You may not have heard of what I've been doing."
"Oh, I heard different things, that you were speech writing--or was it reporting--out in California."
"I've done both. I live in Sacramento. But I've been in Washington for a little while now, five months, actually. I've heard about your show and how well you're doing. I've even seen you on that TV ad promoting some mower."
"Yeah," she said sheepishly, "on-air spokesman for the Atlas mulching mower. It helps us make ends meet at the Eldridge house."
"And I also got wind of your detecting." There came that smile again. "Pretty cool of you, Louise, solving two crimes."
"All of a sudden, I have a career of my own, Jay. But what kind of a problem are you having? How can I help you?"
He looked around, as if to be sure no one was listening. No fear of that. Channel Five's crew had gone home. "Let's just say I'm in a bit of, uh, hot water, and I need a safe place to stay until I finish some writing. Do you know anywhere I can hole up? I'm trying to avoid hotels and motels. Checked out of one yesterday morning and ended up sleeping in my car."
As always, she decided quickly. "Come to our place. Bill and I live eight miles from here; it's just south of Alexandria. We have empty bedrooms, because both of our girls are away."
"Where are your girls?"
"Martha goes to Northwestern, but this summer she's involved in a self-help project in Detroit. Janie, our sixteen-year-old, is in Mexico City for three weeks, helping build houses for people."
Jay raised his eyebrows. "You and Bill have done something right with those kids. As for your offer of a room, that would be perfect, Louise. I won't bother you. I'll eat out; if I could just stay for a week or so, it would be a lifesaver."
A week! The warmth of this reunion suddenly evaporated, and cold reality set in. There went that window of opportunity, that interlude alone with Bill, without kids, without company, maybe making mad love on the living room floor. It dissolved instantly in the name of an old and once very torrid friendship. Houseguests Are Like Gardens--Both Should Be Low-Maintenance
Big bluegrass lawns and fussy flowers such as black-spot-prone tea roses are habits we can give up, just like smoking. They don't fit into the American gardening scene as they used to, for leisure is ephemeral. Few of us live the life of the Victorian lady who had the time to walk up and down the borders with a basket on her arm, dallying with the flowers and picking off diseased leaves by hand. Instead, we are a nation of frenetic, fast-moving people, balancing our time between jobs, shopping, errands, taking kids to game practice, plugging into the Internet, ministering to aging parents, and sneaking away occasionally for a couple of hours' relaxation at a movie.
And still we garden. To many of us, it is an oasis in the midst of our busy lives, a spiritual refreshment that we simply cannot do without. But when is there even the time for gardening? The way we do it is to garden smarter. Through sheer necessity, we are turning to low-maintenance methods that reduce garden labor to two hours or less a week.
There are two principles involved in low-maintenance gardening: plant selection and plant care. Of course, this entire subject may depress the person who has large expanses of bluegrass lawn and beds of perennials with the equivalent of PMS. This is a gardener who is chained to his or her garden, both financially and timewise, and who probably doesn't stint on chemical pest control and heavy fertilization.
The best advice to this gardener is to change.
Do it little by little, but remember the rewards are great. Put the lawn in its place. Get rid of as much as possible, or replace it with turf that suits your climate. Lawns are water-gobbling, high-care prima donnas. Get your soil right: Make it rich, loose, friable. Make your motto, "Let no bare earth show its face to the sun." This means mulching heavily to avoid water loss and weed growth. Seriously consider replacing high-maintenance plants, no matter how beloved, with regional plants that are fully as beautiful and don't need chemicals to stay healthy. Group them together according to their water needs.
These are basic tenets that define "xeriscape." Xeriscaping is the only smart way to garden, if we are to conserve America's precious water resources and to guard against the harm done by chemicals. Here are further tips from successful low-maintenance gardeners:
Design lawn areas compactly for easy watering.
Eliminate hand trimming by putting a barrier between earth and gardens: A row of submerged bricks is an easy, attractive solution.
Plant thickly. This sounds arduous, but spacing plants so that they can grow together quickly reduces weeding and watering. Besides, it makes a wonderful picture. Some plants, of course, are takeover artists; though it is nice to have them filling in, we don't want them smothering their delicate neighbors. When planting, use polymers to aid in water retention and thus give plants a good start.
When planting shrubs and trees, you could surround them with landscaping cloth, but heavy mulching with organic materials is just as effective, and much cheaper. Keep the mulch away from tree trunks so they can breathe.
Select plants for your climate. Don't waste your time with plants that won't thrive there. Visit the best gardens in your area--they may be your friend's garden or the botanic or civic garden--and copy what you see. Talk to the person who made the plant selection and find out what works and what doesn't.
Even if you failed physics, get scientific about water use. Use a timer when watering. Establish simple drip systems in gardens and circular watering rings around individual trees. These cheap and easy practices can reduce your weekly workload by literally hours.
Know your yard as intimately as you know your spouse, its temperamental micro-climates, the effect of wind on its well-being, its watering idiosyncrasies, how the movement of the sun affects the plant through the seasons. This will lead you to put plants and trees in just the right places for a handsome, carefree garden.
Excerpted from Death of a Political Plant by Ann Ripley. Copyright © 1998 by Ann Ripley. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.