Good Nature

A backsliding gardener is no different than a lapsed practitioner of any other religion. Showing up on bended knee just a few times a year serves mainly to remind you of your sins.

Thus, November finds me clawing half-frozen weeds with stiffened fingers to plant a pittance of daffodil bulbs dredged from the nursery clearance bin. I am paying penance for my neglect and wondering if visiting gardens might be preferable to owning a garden — just as visiting a house of worship is so much easier than actually joining one, with all its thorny issues and crabgrass personalities.

Years ago, at the height of my horticultural fervor, I was a member of the Cleveland Botanical Garden in University Circle. I strolled its public gardens, browsed its lending library and took classes in fragrant rooms filled with huge buckets of fresh-cut flowers. Under the tutelage of internationally renowned designers, including Cleveland's Don Vanderbrook, I fashioned blooms into artful arrangements. In landscaping seminars, I learned how to replace bland meatball shrubs with imaginative foundation greenery. I took home recipes for deer repellent and cures for the powdery mildew plaguing my phlox. I bought generous patrons' elegant castoffs at the fabulous white elephant sale.

For a dedicated gardener, this was Eden. I could easily overlook the botanical garden's rarefied, exclusionary atmosphere though even as a dues-paying member, I often felt I had gained admission by sneaking through a service door, past the upturned noses of aloof staff.

Then, the botanical garden decided to build its signature glasshouse, a dazzling project meant to recreate (in the words of a current brochure) "two exotic worlds under glass: The spiny desert of Madagascar and the misty rainforest of Costa Rica." At a benefit in the early '90s, officials showed off a tabletop scale model, extolled the project's virtues and talked of elevating our regional jewel into a major horticultural destination.

I kept silent, but my inner voice screeched like an agnostic interrupting a Hallelujah chorus: "Doesn't the Cleveland Zoo have a rainforest? Do we really need two?"

With the completion of the massive $48 million project in June 2003, changes came quickly. Admission to the outdoor gardens was no longer free. Food from outside was banned. Gone were brown-bag lunches in the shade of the Japanese gardens and catnaps snatched beneath a leafy tree.

Some of my serious gardening friends were miffed. I grew indifferent and let my membership lapse. Over the next seven years, I visited exactly once.

I was not alone in my lack of enthusiasm. Glasshouse attendance has remained far below anticipated levels since its opening. Yet exotic transplants in artificially maintained conditions require disproportionate amounts of money and care to survive. Today, the botanical garden's coffers are substantially strained, its endowment fund eroded by more than half its value, down to $14 million.

Hearing about the botanical garden's struggles gave me pause, the way one might flinch at the news that an old mentor is suffering grave health. I was moved to revisit.

At the door, as an act of faith, I rejoined for $55 in annual dues instead of paying the $8.50 admission. I entered half fearing an institution turned shabby, a shadow of its former glory.

Instead, I was stunned at what I found there. During my near-decade of absence, Cleveland Botanical Garden has risen to a level equal to its better-known cousins across the country.

The rose, perennial, Japanese and formal herb gardens remain lush, with no stray weeds or tired plants in sight. Several gardens have been added or extended, including tiered flower-show theme gardens exploding in color and texture, built at evident expense by local landscape-design firms.

An army of volunteers not only weeds but takes tickets, operates cash registers and answers questions with enthusiasm. Gone is the clubby, insular air I sensed in the past. In its place is an atmosphere of belonging, a wide embrace.

The glasshouse may loom as a glittering monument to unrealistic expectations and underestimated costs, but it's also true that decades of free access to the gardens were sheer luxury. The delusion that beauty and order come cheap is tempting. Those waves of color spilling from manicured beds look so effortless, so natural. But "free" is an illusion: Countless benefactors, from members to volunteers to deep-pocketed patrons, have always paid and worked for what we felt was our cultural entitlement.

The botanical garden shows what can be accomplished when the twin angels of resourcefulness and vision retire their diaphanous gowns and pull on wellies and work gloves.

In my own cold garden, kneeling among overgrown iris and slumping, frost-blackened foliage, I've learned that indifference left unchecked can dismantle decades of dedicated labor. Call me a flush-faced convert, but I'm happy to return to the fold.

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