What clothes you wear when you garden and how you look in them may not be as important as the sharpness of your pruners. But if you spend a lot of time there, you do give it some thought. For most of us, comfort and mobility come first. Forget traditional blue jeans — stiff and unyielding, binding in all the wrong places. I favor old, soft corduroys or maybe stretch jeans — the ’90s’ gift to the gardening world. They allow you to bend, squat, kneel — and they’re sexy. Most “gardener’s pants” are baggy in the butt, with gathered waists. But come to think of it, that look is making a comeback.
My husband, Eliot, combs the catalogs for loose-fitting trousers with a gussetted panel instead of a crotch seam, for freedom of movement. From mountaineering outfitters, he’s bought climbing pants with reinforced knees, and he once found a gardener’s pant with a knee pocket into which you slipped a foam pad. Pure genius!
How did a Victorian gardener such as Gertrude Jekyll ever work in those long, heat-absorbing black skirts? Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she just pointed her walking stick at a clump of phlox so that her head gardener, dapper in his tweed weskit, would know which one to move. But certainly our Colonial foremothers hoed and dug in full length frocks. I know because I visited Sturbridge Village, the historical museum in Sturbridge, Mass. An ace gardener named Christy White was keeping a huge kitchen garden free of weeds despite having to drag layers of long skirts and petticoats through the mud. I admit, her sunbonnet seemed practical.
Modern times have brought female gardeners welcome freedom. Vita Sackville-West tended Sissinghurst in men’s shirts, riding britches and pearls. Ruth Stout may have won fame for her no-till technique, but among her Connecticut neighbors she was best known for gardening in no clothes. And the ’60s and ’70s saw co-ed naked gardening emerge as a significant trend. Rock Bottom Farm in Vermont was nicknamed Bottoms Up Farm by townspeople, in response to this practice. At Greenwood Farm in Maine, nudity was only allowed until 10 a.m. when the farm stand opened, and a cry of “Pants Dance!” warned workers to grab their clothes.
I’ve heard it said that the “layered look,” beloved of fashionistas, originated with bag ladies, but I credit gardeners. The trick is to sally forth on a cool morning wearing a tank top under a long-sleeved shirt, and a vest and/or jacket on top of that. As the sun or your work warms you, the layers are shed and strewn about, to be picked up along with the tools at day’s end. Many of mine are once-nice things I’ve downgraded to gardenwear, or well-broken-in duds from Goodwill. They needn’t look frumpy. I once saw a girl weeding a “monastery garden” at a French museum. She was wearing flared, green velvet slacks and a tight, spangly top. It wasn’t some sort of period costume. She was just French.
I like dressing for a day of dishevelment, for which my makeup routine consists of chapstick, sunblock and bug spray. During spring mud season, I’m so filthy by quitting time that I strip at the front door. Summer dust is even worse, my socks sending up little puffs as I pad across the floor. I never garden in sneakers because they get so foul when wet and take days to dry. I favor those plastic clogs with cork inserts, easy to hose out. Eliot prefers a slip-on Birkenstock that’s even easier to clean.
I will never be the kind of lady gardener who wears flowered smocks, cute espadrilles and face-framing straw hats. Neither the fear of skin cancer nor wrinkles will keep a hat on my head. It itches — then blows away. I’ve tried to wear gloves, but unless it’s very cold they are abandoned the minute I need to probe for a weed’s root or tie up a tomato. I have a flowerpot full of old gloves — all lefts, since the right is the first one to come off, then disappear. If I really need gloves, I use the ones made by a company named Womanswork (www.womanswork.com). They’re thin, strong and sized for female hands. I’ve given dozens as gifts to sisters, daughters and friends.
Anyway, my hands are beyond repair. A manicurist, if I ever had time to visit one, might treat my nails as she would an antique car, with special crack-filling polymers and buffers. I use a lemon wedge to bleach out some of the semi-permanent grime. Once when I was crossing the first floor of Bloomingdales, dressed in my best city chic amid the customers and perfume-sprayers, a tall young man with a ponytail asked if he could massage my hands with lotion. I spread them happily. “What do you…DO?” he asked in puzzlement.
What I do, in the garden, allows me to drop any extra winter pounds each spring without trying, and come in at night with a healthy glow and a basket of great veggies, ready for a sound night’s sleep. That you can’t buy at any store.
Editor’s Note: By the way, World Naked Gardening Day falls on the first Saturday in May. Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”