I grew up in Southern California suburbia and hated gardening. It was called yard work, which pretty much explains why any kid would feel about it as I did. The brunt of the work was in the form of mowing the lawn, edging the lawn, trimming around trees in the lawn, and weeding. Ours was a big lawn, as was every lawn in the neighborhood, and to be kept green, it had to be periodically reseeded, fertilized frequently, and watered continually. The better the lawn grew, the more I had to mow, edge, and trim, and grass sprouted year-round throughout the rest of the yard. Hence, weeding.
Nobody I knew grew vegetables or flowers. My mother had roses, but every reference to them was in a tone of voice that made it clear that roses were something other than mere flowers. “The roses need water." “The roses need weeding." The roses also needed regular feeding and spraying, tasks that could not possibly be entrusted into the hands of a young roustabout who, by his own admission, was dying to be at the schoolyard playing ball. Such lack of trust was fine by me. I’d seen roses fed and sprayed, and it didn't look like any more fun than mowing, etc., or weeding.
Once I had a pet dalmatian that was kept penned up in the side yard north of the house. By definition, this area would be my first garden. There was space, soil, fencing, a neglected shrub or two, architecture in the form of a big plywood doghouse, and, of course, the resident pet itself. There was also a constant and proliferate supply of natural organic matter — not the kind that would help anything grow, it is true, but organic matter nonetheless. I had my own names for it, and I was told time and time again to go out and shovel it because it was nothing but smelly and bad.
I called the dog George. He grew far beyond the dimensions of any normal dalmatian, and he was loud and horny and stupid — although I’ve since heard that dalmatians are often hard of hearing, which would account for his merciless disobedience and why, historically, dalmatians didn't mind riding on fire engines. Regardless, I couldn’t do anything right with George; and at night he was lonely and would whine persistently outside my parents’ bedroom window. It almost split the household. More than once I heard my father go outside and beat the dog, and then there was silence and then George would start in whining again. Finally my mother hauled the dog off to the local pet adoption center, leaving him chained to the gate because the facilities were full. Sometime later, my father took a job in Michigan. He sold the house to his brother and, because I was a senior in high school and now deep into my private life, I stayed put.
That spring, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, I planted vegetable seeds in the shade and dusty soil that had been George’s brief and wretched home. I remember the corn sprouting. Whether or not it tasseled, I wouldn’t know. I spent the summer working in Michigan, making life miserable for everyone around me because I wasn't in California. But come fall, I was a beach-going freshman at UCSD, and that first garden was the furthest thing from my mind.
It is hard to say how passions change as they do. For indefinite health reasons, I gave up eating meat, and I began to think of gardening in terms other than yard work. I had a job as a caretaker for a big spread atop the mesa above La Jolla Shores, and for three years running, I grew vegetables in a sunny plot alongside the abandoned horse corral. There were also lawns to maintain, big beautiful ones at that, and weeds to pull and roses to tend. But the pay was decent, and the house was up for sale, and nobody minded if I let things slide a little and concentrated on growing my own food. Food and, eventually, marijuana.
But this is no place to go into that. Let’s just say that I now thought of myself as something of a gardener, and as time went on, I became more and more of one. I also got married and, not too much later, my wife became pregnant. Needing a house to call our own, I thought about moving to Idaho, imagining a fair spread of land, lots of fruit trees and potatoes, nearby trout streams and, perhaps, a dog that could hear me should I take up bird hunting. Idaho, or maybe a cinder block house surrounded by tomatoes and peppers above a beach in Baja. The baby, however, appeared unwilling to wait around while I tried to figure out how to swing such a move with any prospect of immediate cash flow. Feeling the pinch, we settled for Oceanside, where it also seemed reasonable one could garden and, anyway, as an old flame of mine used to say, “You do what you must, cupcake.’’
There is a blurred afternoon in my head, a speed-frame of grim reckoning. I am at work answering a phone call from my realtor. I am in my pickup racing north on 1-5. I am standing on a patio sizing up a backyard, while an Eastern fellow explains that the front portion of the small house I just hurried through was once a one-room schoolhouse dating back to the past century. I am writing the biggest check of my life. Now, not four hours since this all began, I am watering the lettuce in my garden across the lawn from my tiny garage cottage near La Jolla Shores, listening to my wife say something about a realtor in Poway with whom we have an appointment soon. I tell her it is too late. I hope she likes our new house, I add.
Alone, I go feed the chickens. Their coop is situated in the shadiest corner of the garden, a slight encroachment on the legal distance of poultry from any occupied dwelling. That would be my landlord's house. The garden itself is a twenty-by-thirty plot fenced in between his living room, a cul-de-sac, two big pines, a tall eugenia hedge, and a eucalyptus. This is not your ideal spot to garden. But for the past five years. I’ve done just that, gardening there to the full measure of the craft — pruning trees, building raised beds, growing vegetables and flowers and herbs, planting color schemes, making compost.
I dump the sweet-smelling laying mash into the chickens' feed box, and I understand that now is the beginning of good-bye. In the nesting box, there are four eggs, still warm and the color of a working man’s hands, and for the evening omelet I wander through the garden picking peppers, green onions, a plump, tender tomato. Then I stand between the beds, taking in the evidence of my labors, and I feel the sadness come in waves. None of this means anything to the chickens.
For those of a certain bent, a garden defines home in a way that nothing else can. In time, you belong to a place because of the soil you’ve turned, the seeds you've planted and the plants you’ve nurtured, the seasons seen in the flowers and fruits and vegetables, colors and textures of the garden itself. Nothing tells you more about where you are than a garden. Nothing tells you more about yourself.
There was a long period in my life when I did little in the way of actual gardening. The closest I got was lowly jobs bottling wine, picking daffodils, and digging and sorting lily bulbs. I was on the road. I was also young and, like the man in the song, I spent a lot of my time sitting by the docks of bays.
A garden demands time, especially time in one place, and that sort of time is often meaningless when you are young. I don't want to labor the point. But thing is. I’m not as young anymore.
We moved with winter, a week before the solstice, and for the most part our new garden up on Fire Mountain, in Oceanside, looked like hell. The season, of course, had something to do with it. Though December is a time of native growth along this, the temperate Southland coast, it can go a long way in despoiling the luster of common suburban plantings. Also, there was the matter of long-term neglect — not so much in the minor details such as lawn mowing, leaf raking, and weeding, but in the overall maintenance of trees and shrubs and ground covers, those dominant features of any garden which, left to grow as they please, will meld into an aspect of jumbled, riotous muddle.
This was a good case in point. Fruit trees — both citrus and rosaceous — were either torturously glutted or seeming rats’ nests of branches and tangled suckers. Alongside the patio was a stand of overzealous hibiscus, admirable perhaps if one had in mind a backdrop for re-enactment of the Original Sin. Ivy reached threateningly from atop various hidden structures, and the roots of a forbidding coral tree had given a portion of the driveway the semblance of a seismic fault. Add this to a number of dead-standing trees, others that looked as if they’d be better off dead, plus a huge and garbled hedge stretching for the power lines, and we faced, all in all, the grim prospect of blisters, sweat, and backaches, that triad of toil that marks the challenge of serious gardening anywhere.
I didn't know if I was up for it. With the baby, sweet thing, coming fast, it seemed improbable that I’d have time for more than the multiple fixing-up chores known to new homeowners everywhere who can’t afford to buy first-hand. Plus, there was the furniture to acquire, recondition, or build; the nursery to outfit; and, as is often the case, the wage-earning required to pay back a kindly father for the loan he'd extended to enable us to make a down payment in the first place.
Then there was the garage, so called because, despite its state of utter disrepair, one could park a car inside. Certainly it was a structure with room enough for that. On the other hand, it was not someplace to keep a car — or anything else — removed from inclement weather. A good rain hit, as good rains will, a week before Christmas, and as I frantically retrieved my garden notebooks and references, I knew the feeling of stateroom passengers grabbing worldly possessions in the depths of a sinking ship.
Before any thought of gardening, therefore, I first had to put the garage — or, better, the shed — in order. Prerequisite to any outdoor endeavor is, in my mind, a sound, weatherproof structure, detached from one’s actual living quarters. There are times, as one contemplates either work or sport, when the need is to be near the field of action without being directly in it. You cannot seriously consider the task of, say, opening up a backyard of weeds to tomatoes while sitting in a comfy living room. You do not go duck hunting in a convertible.
A garden without a shed is at least not so bad as a garden without a house, which to my way of thinking is not a garden at all. Parks and other public landscapes are fine in themselves, yet they lack that individual touch that bespeaks a gardener’s personality, tastes, or eccentricities. Worse are those community garden plots, now found commonly in both cities and suburbs. Granted, the notion of sharing otherwise vacant space for the cultivation of food and flowers by people who generally have no land of their own is a good one. But all I can think of when looking on such plots is the sorrowful emptiness of all that greenery without porch or doorstep from which one can gaze upon, or enter, his slice of Eden.
I’ve gardened that way, and I remember how my efforts seemed always to lack a certain spiritual tone. There is the problem, of course, of tending such a spot with the frequency a garden demands, especially in the form of puttering, that most necessary — and therapeutic — of garden enterprises. Beyond that, the garden without a house is a denial of that marriage toward which all gardeners aspire, a private aesthetic inextricably linked to where one eats, sleeps, spars with his demons, and makes love.
But why say more about that? I’ve got a cheery little house on a third of an acre, with good morning sun and afternoon breezes still fresh from the sea. I rolled out a new roof on the shed, and I cut in a window that looks out on the lemon tree. A refurbished door leads out past the boysenberries, now climbing a redwood trellis, and beyond that are two big compost bins brimful with fresh horse manure, plus my chickens I hauled up from La Jolla. Somehow I managed to prune all the fruit trees before they flowered. Two truckloads of brush and trash were carried off to the dump, and I've almost exposed the fence out front, hacking away at ivy at the foot of the date palms that stand like gigantic sentries between me and my lawn, unmowed, and the world beyond.
So I guess I was up for it. There are passions without ready cure. The day I tore out the ivy along the patio, revealing a long and previously unseen bench, I happened to glance at my garden notes of the past two years, discovering this was the weekend I’d been choosing to start tomatoes. At the local garden center I picked up a pony-pak of Early Girls and, as is my wont, a few other items. Cosmos, foxglove, and delphinium were added to an existing bed out front, where I’d recently reassembled an ugly grouping of agapanthus, petunias, and chrysanthemums. The effect was immediate and not unrefined. This is now the Summer Bed.
I name all of my beds. It is not always an accurate description, as in the case of the bed just mentioned, where the flowers have as much, or more, to do with spring. But there was something summery about the planting as a whole. Often the name of a bed is inspired simply by a dominant or existing plant at hand. I detest the notion of rose beds, which usually feature an ad hoc collection of discordant, clashing colors, the plants themselves being situated in a circumscribed plot of dull, bare earth. But in my La Jolla garden, I had a couple of heritage roses, varieties dating back to the past century; and after I dug them up and brought them north, and then planted them alongside the back of the house where before had stood a hedge of scraggly bottlebrush, I was faced with what could only be calleda rose bed of my own. A thick mulch of straw and manure mitigated the formal aspect I normally abhor, and by adding some native coral bells, society garlic, and a lovely sub-shrub of madder sage, I composed a rose bed I could call just that without too much real embarrassment.
Then there was the herb bed that had to go in, because my wife has come to settle for nothing less than fresh herbs in the kitchen, and I’m enchanted by the rich history and multiform foliage of herbs in all their varieties. This bed took shape as a forty-square-foot box made of two-by-twelve redwood, and the planting itself exhibited an utter lack of discipline. But if you love herbs, you just have to go in for them all.
The vegetable beds are out back behind the shed, recipients of the best sun the property has to offer. As stated before, and like a lot of other gardeners, I got my start growing things I like to eat. Now I go to great lengths for the simple sake of fresh produce free of both pesticides and chemical fertilizers. I'm also a stickler about vine-ripened fruit. Still, it’s been nearly a dozen years since I last raised a decent melon, which would date back to that sunny garden I had up on the mesa above the beaches of La Jolla, where my cantaloupes, among other treats, were as good as they come. Later, in the shady hollow that described my garden beneath the haze within earshot of the La Jolla surf, melons were my private Sisyphus. That’s good lettuce territory, just warm enough for peppers and tomatoes, and your beans and squash will go on producing as long as you can keep the powdery mildew in check. But melons — forget it.
My new vegetable beds are all raised, double-dug to a depth of two spade heads as prescribed by the biodynamic/French intensive method. The Method, as you will sometimes hear it referred to, is now de rigueur for modern organic gardeners, although it is much the same as what the English have always called bastard trenching. And the Chinese were doing it 5000 years ago. By whatever name you give it, digging good raised beds entails a lot of initial hard labor, as much compost as you can produce or get your hands on, and eventually little work at all besides forking over your soil and broadcasting a smattering of organic amendments. I’m also fond of adding quantities of sand whenever I have some around, to improve the drainage of that clay which is so prevalent here in the Southland. And I know better than to do any of this if I can’t locate my food beds in a place that receives full sun for at least two-thirds of the day — just the sort of spot where, God willing. I’m going to have plump, juicy melons come August on Fire Mountain.
I might as well mention, while we’re on the subject of edible pursuits, that I took it upon myself, right at the start here, to put in some grapes. Now, anybody who knows anything about local horticulture knows that coastal Southern California is not grape country. But to me the growing of grapes epitomizes all that is gracious and ennobling in gardening, and even if I weren't to have an affinity for grapes in the form of their most notable byproduct, I'd still want to grow them.
Grapes require, of course, that you stay put for a while. For years I rejected them, knowing I’d soon be off to another plot of rented land, as if some sort of urban sharecropper. But now I’ve two young vines along the back of the shed that’s painted white to maximize light, and ruthless pruning has produced a pair of strong future trunks per plant, each reaching already above the bottom wire of a stout trellis. My dream is the classic Geneva double curtain, a growing method that employs long, head-high cordons punctuated by downward spurs and, eventually, clusters of dangling fruit. We’ll see. Pierce’s disease, common in these parts and incurable, can strike in a moment, and any tendency toward normal garden pampering does a grapevine more harm than good. But I’ve seen fine vineyards in the haze and sea breezes above beaches of the Canary Islands, source of countless Southern California garden plants, and I've no reason to believe it can't be done here, long as you hold your tongue right.
As much as anything else, I suppose, one's desires in gardening are symptoms of these infatuations with that which is difficult — or impossible — to grow. In the Southland tract where I was raised, developers planted geraniums in front of every house for purpose of immediate, colorful effect; and geraniums were the first things you pulled out to make room for more “sophisticated” plantings. My wife's mother up in Oregon, on the other hand, whose spring garden is a marvel of flowering bulbs, azaleas, and rhododendron, nurses her few treasured geraniums through the winter by bringing them into her living room at every threat of frost. In Santa Rosa, where Luther Burbank found the perfect climate to carry out his eclectic breeding of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. I’ve a friend whose roses and kitchen garden are the epitome of classic horticulture, yet who, in a recent fall visit to San Diego, couldn't stop from lavishing envious praise on the preponderance of hibiscus in bloom. Were she to see what I did to my hibiscus here, therefore, she might well be sickened, my motive for onslaught being that I detested the look of Hawaii Five-O in a bed I feel promises the urbane spiritualism of a Kyoto tea garden. And the great Gertrud Jekyll, mother of modern gardening at its most artful and sublime, loved her yuccas. Grown throughout her spectacular herbaceous borders, some of which extended hundreds of feet in length, were broad as streams, and passed through gradations of every color of the rainbow, yuccas were considered by Miss Jekyll “the glory of the garden in flower... possessing a picture of perhaps the highest degree of nobility of plant form that may be seen in an English garden.” Well, I like yuccas, too, although most preferably on sunbaked hillsides choked with other local natives — sages and scrub oak, chamise and buckwheats and what you will. In Southland gardens proper, yuccas invariably become monsters, which I've never hesitated to slay. The last two met their deaths in the far corner beyond the tangerines and apricots, a delicious sun pocket where, could I figure out a way to induce a similarity to three months of subfreezing weather. I'd love to grow a tree of big, juicy, red McIntosh apples.
At the other end of the spectrum is the inclination to grow any of that vast number of garden plants that, like the yucca above, enjoy a certain popularity because, quite simply, they are easy to grow. “Fool-proof' and “vigorous" are terms often associated with such plants, and rare is the gardener who hasn't been seduced by these or similar descriptions. Nobody likes to have plants die on them. But here in the Southland, where we are favored by a climate that can accommodate at least some variety of most every species of plant found on this good earth, planting the fool-proof and vigorous is the surest way to fill your garden with the rank and unruly. One should read such descriptions with the same discretion given the surgeon general’s warning on a pack of cigarettes.
Coming as I do from the West, I like to cultivate a sense of open space. Vistas and blue skies have always been the region’s dominant themes, and the garden that denies a broad continuum of direct light seems in contrast to native splendors. Of course, nobody wants to restrict himself to an absolutely shadeless setting, and it would be a long hot summer indeed in a yard beset solely in a landscape of wildflowers, sage scrub, and chaparral. Nor can one argue reasonably against the need for privacy, perhaps the fundamental priority of gardens everywhere. Still, I find the tendency to enclose oneself in a stronghold of evergreens, overgrown shrubs, towering hedges, and tall, formidable fences an affront on both what it is we are blessed with most here in Southern California — i.e., sun and clear skies — as well as that which is the plight to which we must all be reconciled — that is, too many people in too small a space. I don’t mind seeing my neighbors and, generally, I don’t mind them seeing me.
Okay, so this is me after a day of gardening up on Fire Mountain. I have a number of reasons to feel out of sorts. The chrysanthemums are blooming, months ahead of schedule, their whiskey color as lurid in the Summer Bed as if punks in full regalia come to Sunday Mass. I fiddled with the irrigation system, ending up with a muddy trench along the front walk, a rusty valve that snapped off in the jaws of the pipe wrench, and a miniature geyser undermining a corner of the bean patch. Aphids are amuck in the day lilies. We’re losing thyme in the herb box. Not a single lettuce has sprouted in my seed flats. The leaves of the iris near the blackberries have suddenly taken on the look of beef jerky.
Then, when my father stopped by to drop off a car seat for the baby, he took one look at the piles of sand and raw horse manure on the patio, the broken-down washing machine outside the service porch, the big brush heaps standing among the fruit trees, and he said, “Looks like you’re losing the battle.”
I could use a drink. I retreat to the shed and pour myself a stiff one, and I settle down at the workbench to wonder if any of this is worth it. Sometime later, I am considering a plan to round up many broken-down washing machines, hang them like colossal fruit from ropes high in the palm trees out front, and paint the trunks of the palms to resemble spiraling, red-and-white barber shop poles. Now, that would mean something. Or, should the grapes succeed, I might well introduce a new economy wine under the label “Fire Mountain,” advertising the use of at least one grape of my own in each and every bottle — screw caps, of course — and a complimentary tube of Cheez Whiz with any purchase.
Which is not to imply frivolity. Lord knows there are very few gardens that would not be improved by evidence of some sort of sense of humor. And to wonder, seriously, if your gardening efforts are really all worth it is but one step away from self-deprecation. Or, beyond that, the bottle instead of the meditative drink. I close up shop, returning to the garden as the evening cloud bank rolls in off the sea. There are crickets sounding in the straw mulch in the potato patch and mockingbirds singing crazily in the big bottlebrush tree. Up on the antenna, the pair of resident kestrels sit silent as stones in a pond. High above them, a wave of swallows blows by, making for dinnertime insects at the nearby lagoon. Will the bam owl come tonight?
I bend over and pull a weed, a reflex action. Now the garden is again just fine by me. Silence — or at least a purity of natural song — has come to seem the rarest of commodities along this crowded stretch of coast. Normally the car, the freeway, the jet and telephone and lawn mower up the street bombard the garden, denying the quiet that is yet another of its intents in the first place. But at this moment, I can almost hear things growing.
I cross the yard, stooping beneath the clothesline, a branch of green oranges, the broad scaffold of the old apricot tree. These are never idle strolls. When one of our cats was killed this spring out on Fire Mountain Drive, I buried it near the yucca stumps, the same spot where I’d imagined that unlikely apple tree. Thus began the Grave Bed, as intrinsic to the whole of the garden as the shed, the grapes, the herbs and roses and chickens and vegetables, the plans for a pond for my pet bass I left in La Jolla. I feel like communing. There are strong doses of humility to be gained from a garden, too.
I stand beside the mound of freshly turned earth, watching the dew darken the surface. The cat’s name was Spider, a black-and-white stray my wife found as a sickly kitten in the parking lot outside her work place. I also called him Mr. Chinaman, because of his long, straight whiskers and, especially, his Buddha-like demeanor.
Don’t anybody start in on me about stereotyping. The baby’s due any day now, and there will come a time that I take it into the garden, show it the grave, and attempt to explain its fate is the same. China, where this thing we call gardening all got started, has always found her art in nature. No garden is divorced from nature, no life from....
My wife announces dinner, and I see her remarkable silhouette above the back porch. I look down, imagining lush lawn at my feet, and think: May the little guy — Spider, I mean — rest in peace in his bed in tomorrow's sun.