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We are what we wear (in the garden)

May 24, 2023

The temptation when choosing gardening clothes is to compromise. After all, you’re working outside, in the soil. Anything you wear is bound to get dirty.

When I started gardening, I wore old clothes, figuring I would use them up. Once that was a pair of jeans that kept falling down while I worked. Another time, I wore white jeans that were very much on their last legs. I thought I was being practical. Two gardening friends came by and struggled to conceal their disapproval of my choice. They tried to be polite and not say what was on their minds: Who wears white to garden? We laughed about it later.

The more I gardened, the more I came to revere the garden — and the more carefully I chose what to wear. These days, I opt for old favorites: broken-in jeans, cozy sweaters that don’t itch and jackets suited to the elements.

I also take care with the clothing I choose for my scarecrow Herb, named after a character from Reginald Arkell’s “Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden.” The novel, set in Victorian England, follows Herbert Pinnegar from his youth as a village orphan until his old age. He is given a pair of corduroys when he becomes a gardener at an English estate.

To him, this new attire was a burden, not a blessing. “That was the trouble with corduroy — it lasted forever,” Arkell wrote. “Young Pinnegar’s main object in life was to get out of corduroy.” I, for one, like corduroy, and I gave my scarecrow Herb some inexpensive corduroy pants. A few years later, although faded somewhat from the sunlight, the pants still look new. Herb also has two shirts: orange plaid for fall, blue plaid for spring.

Does your yard have a ‘hellstrip’? Native plants could help.

The choice of what to wear in the garden is as varied as the choice of what to plant. Author E.B. White observed that his wife, New Yorker editor Katharine White, took a nonchalant approach to garden fashion. “I seldom saw her prepare for gardening, she merely wandered out into the cold and the wet, into the sun and the warmth, wearing whatever she had put on that morning,” he wrote. “Once she was drawn into the fray, once involved in transplanting or weeding or thinning or pulling deadheads, she forgot all else; her clothes had to take things as they came. … She simply refused to dress down to a garden: she moved in elegantly and walked among her flowers as she walked among her friends — nicely dressed, perfectly poised.”

Others prefer a casual, even quirky look. “My mother used to garden semi-naked,” Australian writer Germaine Greer wrote, “with an old pair of knickers wrapped around her hair to keep the dust out. In colder weather, she would rope up a pair of father’s old trousers and put on a cardigan back to front. Thus attired, she felt ready for anything.”

Gloves, too, are a subject of some debate among gardeners. I find them valuable when the sun is bright or the cold is biting. But otherwise, I prefer working with bare hands, following the Roy Strong approach. “Having struggled for years with my hands made elephantine and awkward by being encased in leather, I now opt for buying bundles of bright yellow stretch-vinyl ones when I can find them,” he wrote. “But, I have to confess, most of the time I don’t wear gloves at all because I love the feel of everything from petal, to leaf, to the earth itself. The result is gardener’s hands, I’m afraid — but who cares?”

Who cares, indeed. Gardening affords a level of comfort absent from most other settings. The old white jeans, the vinyl gloves, the rumpled flannel — the garden passes no judgment, and fashion wins no favor. “There’s not time for fashion in the garden,” Strong wrote, “which is such a relief.”

I sometimes remind myself that the world’s most famous gardeners, Adam and Eve, wore nothing while cultivating Eden. Of course, modern gardeners won’t be quite so lax, but the principle remains unchanged: The garden is a sanctuary where you get to make the decisions. Whether dressed up or down, in castoffs or corduroy, loose pants or knickers wrapped around hair, it’s your garden. Obviously, anything goes.

Catie Marron is the author of “Becoming a Gardener: What Reading and Digging Taught Me About Living.” Find her on Instagram @catiemarron.