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The great pretenders

Amateurism, you could say, is alive and well on the plots. Red, for instance, without using the word, sometimes says of himself: "If they ask what that man is doing, tell them he has no idea. That's why he's doing so well."

Of course Red knows very well what he's doing. But some of us don't have to pretend.

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You need only glance at my Florence fennel or my winter cabbages to see they are being grown by an enthusiastic ignoramus.

The cabbages are leggy, still overcrowded where they were sown. I should have planted them out spaciously long ago, but I couldn't find a gap for them anywhere. Now it may be too late.

As for the fennel, I would like to grow it successfully. But my first attempt is somewhat shameful. These feathery plants are supposed to plump themselves up at the stem-foot to make a kind of bulb.

They are not meant to flower before the bulb swells.

My slender specimens are flowering gorgeously, utterly bulbless. There is more I need to know about fennel-growing....

I'm not sure if any other plotter tries fennel. I would expect the intrepid Carlo to, this vegetable being an Italian favorite. But when in early summer he invited me into his plot, and then into his greenhouse to admire his giant pot of basil, I'm pretty sure the word "fennel" never escaped his lips.

I should quote to him the unbounding praise lavished on fennel on Oct. 8, 1824, by Thomas Appleton, the American consul to Livorno, Italy. It was in a letter accompanying seeds sent to a certain Mr. Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. I believe that Jefferson's garden at Monticello is still planted today in honor of the great man's memory and horticultural endeavors, but if fennel is not grown in it, it certainly should be.

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Appleton wrote (the commas all his own): "The Fennel, is beyond, every other vegetable, Delicious.... [T]here is no vegetable, equals it in flavour. It is eaten at Dessert, crude, and, with, or without Dry Salt, indeed, I preferred it to every other vegetable, or to any fruit."

Worth a second try, I'd say. But clearly it is not a plant that just grows itself for you, like spinach.

Or Carlo's basil. Then in its beginnings, it looked so good that I'm sure it must have known an Italian hand had sown it. Carlo also showed me a single plant in another pot. "My only pepper to come up," he said proudly.

Now, in spite of Carlo's inborn touch with vegetables, he is the first to admit he really hasn't a clue what he's doing, and his pepper presented me with a predicament.

As a child I once sowed a small packet of willow gentian seeds (a rarely beautiful plant). I waited an age for germination.

At last a minuscule seedling appeared. I treasured it with all due disproportion, cooing over it pigeonlike, parenting my hatchling.

It was many moons before I could bring myself to admit that what I was fostering was a common weed. I was not pleased.

I imagined Carlo would not be pleased, either, but what could I do? "You know, "I said, "I think it's actually a thistle, Carlo."

I hadn't reckoned on his Tuscan bravura. "NO. NO. NO! IS DEFINITELY A PEPPER!"

Two weeks later, on the main path, he said: "Oh, you know - that thistle - how could I not know, eh? I got angry one day and threw it out. To think I wouldn't know a thistle!"

But then that's amateurs for you.

*A weekly series about a municipal

garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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