If you had told me that I would be kept up late reading a book about gardening, I might have thought you had me confused with my father. My father had an engineer’s ability to find beauty and intrigue in the Burpee seed catalog. A self-taught, former city-boy gardener, he grew vegetables that fed and formed five children, and forced his wife to learn the fine arts of canning and preserving in the long stretches of free time our sports and scouts-filled days allowed her. He planted flowers, but for the most part their presence had something to do with the needs of the “real” plants that provided sustenance and satisfaction.
For me, then, Norman Draper’s story was a kind of coming home, in a rollicking mash-up of Crockett’s Victory Garden and Best in Show. If you can’t follow those references, you didn’t suffer through hundreds of hours of PBS programming like we did, but you also missed out on Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy’s hilarious send up of another competitive sport. I imagine Backyard to be how Guest would handle the local gardening mavens that people Draper’s small town suburb, Livia. They are a motley crew, with some more believable than others, and not really a whole bunch of sympathetic ones, but I think the distance this provides enables the reader to laugh more easily at the outrageous stunts they perpetrate in their quest for the almost ridiculous “title”.
I was not especially well-versed in competitive gardening, but I did have a glimpse of it in its amateur incarnation in my hometown. In our neighborhood, the latest techniques were discussed, attempted, bragged about, and then copied at will. Catalogs and seed packets abounded. The town of Livia seems to be much the same, though the lengths its gardeners will go to win are both despicable and hilarious. Draper seems at once cynical and sincere, but sends up the whole lot of them in his gently wicked tale. Given that he is a gardener himself, I trust that the sincere more often outweighed the cynical, but I cannot fault him for that.
For all of the farce presented here, I’m sure some of these tales were a case of truth being stranger than fiction; not so far off the mark of what could or has happened in this competitive landscape (pun intended, couldn’t help myself). Some of it works better than others, and you may find you need a nice glass of wine in hand before you settle into this charming story in order to stave off your own inner cynic, but it is a terrific way to spend a few lovely afternoons, feet up on a bench, overlooking a well-tended garden in bloom.
Front Yard, the sequel, is next.