It's a deeply disturbing behavior, a sick and demented habit that explodes like a zucchini seed carelessly thrown into a pile of horse manure.

It's a deeply disturbing behavior, a sick and demented habit that explodes like a zucchini seed carelessly thrown into a pile of horse manure.

You willingly forsake family and shun friends. You yearn to quit your day job to feed your growing habit. You live to grub in the dirt for food.

And don't get me started on the hygiene problem. It's a dirty business when you become, well, soiled by the addictive activity.

I'm talking about gardening, of course.

After several years of living clean with no telltale signs of fresh dirt under our fingernails, green stains on our knees or the hint of garden-fresh shallots on our breaths, Maureen and I have tumbled off the wagon.

Make that the potato truck.

We are growing a little vegetable garden this year. But we have promised each other it will be nothing like the green monster of old that controlled our lives before we fled to Sterling Creek.

This garden will be tiny, we agreed. Yessirree Bob, just a few tomatoes, a couple of cucumbers, a row of radishes, some carrots.

Maybe a melon or two. Perhaps some peppers.

We pledged to control our fresh vegetable fix this time. Like good enablers, we talk about the rewards of gardening: the joys of crunching into a cucumber planted from seed, of chomping down on a juicy home-grown tomato, of picking our own bugs from our teeth.

I bring this up because Memorial Day weekend has always been the weekend my family traditionally plant tomatoes in southwestern Oregon. We firmly believe planting them earlier in the spring invites a killing frost, not unlike washing a fishing vest puts a curse on a fishing season.

Ritual is important when the green monkey is on your back.

There are millions of us out there suffering from the addiction. In fact, gardening is the most popular outdoor activity in the nation by most estimates.

There is nothing we enjoy more than an early morning stroll before work to check on the produce's progress. We are invariably out there each evening during the work week in hopes of being the first to see a radish sprouting up.

And weekends are spent joyfully slaving in the garden, cussing gophers — or are they moles? — and praying for a congregation of praying mantises.

Curiously, as an urchin reared in Kerby I loathed gardening. Pulling weeds in the vegetable patch during the summer while the cool, clear Illinois River flowed nearby made for a long, sweltering day.

It didn't help when an adult — I believe it was our father — sagely observed that people with gardens live longer than those who rely on store-bought veggies.

Pumpkin poop, it just seems longer, I recall thinking to myself. OK, so I wasn't thinking pumpkins at the time. But I'm sure I got the poop part right.

Even in college I recall my initial disbelief upon reading that the great American novelist Henry James felt the loveliest two words in the English language were "summer afternoon."

He obviously never sweated out a summer afternoon in a vegetable garden, both hands tugging on a stubborn weed that broke just above the root. Later I realized he was referring to lazy days spent reading a good book, a sentiment I share, especially if it's poring over a garden book on a dreary winter afternoon.

That's how we planned our garden this year. Unfortunately, given the local deers' appetite for green salads, we needed a fence to protect our horticulture habit.

The fence started out simple enough with a 40-foot-square. Then Maureen decided to add a rose garden, herb garden and flower garden.

The deer fence now worms its way up our little valley, following the contours of the land.

Each post hole was dug the old-fashioned way with a manual post hole digger. Yes, a gas-powered digger would have been faster than human power.

But anyone with fresh garden dirt under his or her nails tries to harvest as much misery as possible in each task. It's an unwritten masochistic code.

We're hoping the 495 feet of six-foot-tall garden wire we bought is enough. After all, we want to keep it small.

Yessirree, Bob.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.