Gardening is good for the physique. It helps to tone the arms and trim the midsection. At the end of a day in the garden your skin might even glow. How bad can fresh air and physical activity be, especially when your work has put great food on the table?
If you put a serious effort into the garden – weeding, digging, hoeing and carrying stuff around all day – your limbs and torso will finish out the season a bit more buff and beautiful than they were in spring.
The extremities, however, are another matter. A gardener’s hands collect grime that a quick scrub in the sink can barely touch. It gets into every crevice of your roughed-up skin and stays there. It lodges under the fingernails, or what’s left of them after scratching around in the soil. One of my thumbnails is permanently grooved from dropping a rock on it and is uncleanable. My feet are even worse. And the car – a modest hatchback I vowed would never be used to haul lime, hay bales, tools, buckets of manure or plants – is now, indelibly, a gardener’s car.
Most of the time, none of these flaws matter. Gardeners take them as badges of honor. A lot of my neighbors have hands just like mine, and I love my farmer husband’s scarred paws, so strong, so skillful, so gentle with fragile fruits and baby chicks. But every now and then one has to clean up.
If it’s a last-minute occasion, with 20 minutes to shower and change, I do the best I can. I'll grab a scrub brush, then move on to a pumice stone. I’ve been known to sprinkle Comet on my hands, stained greenish-brown from tomato pruning. But here’s what works best: a simple lemon. Massaging hands and feet with a cut lemon brings them closer to respectability than anything else I’ve tried.
Sometimes there’s an event coming up where I have to look great – a formal dinner, perhaps, or a wedding at which we must all uphold the family honor. This takes a more determined campaign. For several days prior I wear gardening gloves, and socks. (Dirt sifts its way through both, especially if the shoes are Crocs, but it’s a start.) Then I dig out all the nail grime I can with the tip of a metal nail file. One time I succeeded so well that after chatting with a nice old gent about our respective lives he said, “You can’t be a gardener. Your hands are too clean.” Defiantly, I made him feel my calluses, and I felt I’d made a new friend.
When my husband and I head out to such an occasion we'll often stop to holler goodbye to crew members still in the fields, taking care not to step into the soil with our dress-up shoes, and we can tell by the astonished looks on their faces that we have done okay. Down the drive and out the gate we go, in the car. But oh Lordy, the car.
Damrosch is author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.