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Growing a green thumb takes time and effort

When the azaleas and dogwoods are blooming, it's easy to ignore all the warnings about freezes hovering over the northern border. I don't care what they say, it's time to check out the flower garden. With a cool breeze behind me, sunshine around my shoulders and springtime discoveries to be made, it's a treat I can't postpone any longer. So, down on my knees, tugging away at the weeds, I find myself asking some very profound questions.

I wonder what eventually happens to all the tons of topsoil we've deposited on our little square of land these past 10 years. There must be some deep, dark cavern under the aquifer or some subterranean pocket under the earth where it all ends up as it disappears from the top of our yard. I figure Hernando County's elevation would have been raised to the height of Mount Everest by now if all that dirt had remained in one place.

I wonder what happens to all the weed killer that meanders right past the weeds, directly into some mysterious place where it can avoid doing what it's supposed to do. Judging from the strength and enormous variety of weeds in our yard, I'm certain this continuous bypassing has cloned weeds that are strong enough to hold down the space shuttle or tie up the Love Boat when it docks.

My husband must have been a farmer in a former life who by some awful mistake was reborn in Brooklyn. That's perfectly okay with me, except the sidewalks of New York aren't really the place to nurture a latent desire to grow string beans. He finally grew a garden when we moved to Valley Stream, Long Island, and was doing fine where the weather and soil treat lettuce and cabbage in a fairly decent way.

Little did he know what challenges he would face when we moved to Florida. By the time he quit swearing over the creatures that sneaked out of their lairs at night to chop off the tops of his tomato plants, he was ready to tackle the cutworms, the sand and the heat. I didn't dare say a word about how we could buy enough beans to fill the freezer 10 times over by the time we finished buying all the topsoil, weed killers and bug repellents. I learned a long time ago that a marriage of 43 years depends on the subtle withholding of questions that husbands have no desire to hear at certain times in their life.

All of this has its rewards, however, because Bill is prouder of a handful of string beans grown here than a bushel grown in New York. In July and August, in fact, it's best to ask how his pole beans and parsley are doing before you ask about the family. The condition of the green peppers has a great deal to do with the mood of the day.

Because I am interested in flowers, I decided to ignore the problems of Husband Dear and concentrate on roses. Neither of us realized that in order to garden in Florida, you really ought to have a working knowledge of organic chemistry. Just listen to one of those talk shows on gardening, if you think I'm kidding. If you're not up on the nitrogen and potassium levels you're supposed to have in your dirt and a smattering of something about alkaline, you're playing Russian roulette with your petunias.

It's a great tribute to the dauntless determination of Florida gardeners who are determined to reconstruct the soil of the Suncoast and produce vegetables and flowers that win all kinds of prizes.

They're doing it, too. When the Spring Hill Civic Club gives the "Garden-of-the-Month" award to a family here, you can be certain that it's richly deserved and dearly earned.

As for Husband Dear and yours truly, our gardening ambitions are too short-lived and sporadic to win anything more than an occasional bout with a mole cricket or two. The rest of the time, we putter and celebrate the plants that survive the freezes that intrude their unwelcome winds into our garden. We've never quite gotten over how delightful it is to see azaleas blooming in February. It's a wonderful time of year.