Pat Welsh, the Julia Child of Gardening

Why does San Diego have so many tropicals and sub-tropicals?

Many Del Mar residents still walk the shortcut path that Gunther landscaped up the side of his property, between Hoska Drive and Crest Way. It is a deeply shaded, mysterious jungle path — a secret green tunnel that only residents know about.
  • Many Del Mar residents still walk the shortcut path that Gunther landscaped up the side of his property, between Hoska Drive and Crest Way. It is a deeply shaded, mysterious jungle path — a secret green tunnel that only residents know about.
  • Image by Peter Jensen

Her garden grows in a quarter-acre bowl of sandstone at the northwest end of the Del Mar bluff. I often think of it as a velvet, bangled ear — one turned and tuned to the sound of surf rising from the beach a few hundred yards away. Plants grow in terraces as if forming a colorful conch washed ashore after growing to maturity on a fantastic reef, the same reef that may have spawned the garden of a Vita Sackville West in England, hillside gardens on the Amalfi coast, or Santa Barbara’s estates — any of the ageless efforts of gardeners compelled to create gardens in which something far deeper than simple landscaping is at work. Here in Del Mar. Small, improbable, a surprise hidden from the street, but nonetheless here.

Pat Welsh was “born into a family of garden lovers from Yorkshire, England,”  daughter of the 1930s actress Ruth Fischer-Smith and film producer Emerson Fischer-Smith (“His best movies were Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Men of Steel, and Tiger Bay").

Pat Welsh was “born into a family of garden lovers from Yorkshire, England,” daughter of the 1930s actress Ruth Fischer-Smith and film producer Emerson Fischer-Smith (“His best movies were Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Men of Steel, and Tiger Bay").

The house, designed by John Lloyd Wright, sits back in the hill, its driveway situated to a shaded northeast side. The image of this place as a listening post has come to mind every time I’ve pushed open a slightly recalcitrant redwood gate and stepped onto the brick entry path.

In spring I enter a quivering purple tunnel of wisteria blossoms. They grow on sides and top of a narrow trellis, the path wide enough for two people to walk side by side. Surf sounds, unheard a moment before, are amplified as if by a cupped hand.

I am always aware that I’m being led, firmly but with great friendliness, to see certain things that are very dear to whoever lives here: A glimpse of horizon framed by a climbing yellow rose, so healthy it almost somersaults; a painterly, impressionistic drift of wildflowers in hot sun colors; a bed of cooler, more subtle surprises beneath espaliered Anna apples.

Frances and John Lloyd Wright. At lunch Pat is always joined by her husband, retired superior court judge Louis Welsh, whose parents, Frances and John Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), both now deceased, lived next door.

Frances and John Lloyd Wright. At lunch Pat is always joined by her husband, retired superior court judge Louis Welsh, whose parents, Frances and John Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), both now deceased, lived next door.

This morning, Patricia Welsh, garden author and former television resident gardener (as she was called at San Diego’s KNSD, Channel 39), is already down by the rose arbor. On the low walls beside the path sit baskets full of tools, seed packets, fertilizer tabs, and gloves carried down from the potting shed. None of it seems to be useless impedimenta or the stuff of a garden chambermaid about to rake and sweep. These tools are no different than the worn but carefully cared-for brushes, blades, and palettes found in an artist’s studio.

A Frances Wright signature carving, Welsh garden. "The Wrights were very strong characters with very strong ideas, many of which were wonderful, a few of which I disagreed with. But you really didn’t openly disagree with the Wrights."

A Frances Wright signature carving, Welsh garden. "The Wrights were very strong characters with very strong ideas, many of which were wonderful, a few of which I disagreed with. But you really didn’t openly disagree with the Wrights."

I’ve asked to spend the day digging and planting at her side, and she has agreed, not unused to the requests of friends and acquaintances who feel the urge for apprenticeship. But it will be a rare day. She likes to garden alone, communicating with herself, the plants, and birds as if between sleep and waking.

At lunch she is always joined by her husband, retired superior court judge Louis Welsh, whose parents, Frances and John Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), both now deceased, lived next door. Pat and Lou eat in the garden if it’s sunny; and some or all of the food served each day was grown a few steps away, if only a slice of lemon.

Stone pot and water, Welsh Garden. "It was her idea to get rid of the lawn and put in a patio. I felt, ‘Oh my God, it’s like a prison.’ So I went out and I got pots. And I decorated the whole thing up with colorful flowers in pots."

Stone pot and water, Welsh Garden. "It was her idea to get rid of the lawn and put in a patio. I felt, ‘Oh my God, it’s like a prison.’ So I went out and I got pots. And I decorated the whole thing up with colorful flowers in pots."

I know from experience that it will be a day of wide-ranging conversation, teaching, and pauses for storytelling. Now 66, Pat, as she prefers to be called, lives the somewhat more private life of a garden book author whose first work, Pat Welsh's Southern California Gardening, A Month by Month Guide (Chronicle Books, San Francisco), has sold well since its debut in 1992. Garden clubs have sometimes taken to calling it “the Bible” when introducing her at one of the many speaking engagements she makes each year around the county. That moniker was once reserved for the Sunset Western Garden Hook.

Her next book, however — All My Edens — is the one I am most eager to read. Now in production, it will go on sale in April 1996. Pat’s memoirs— her fantastic but true stories and intimate family tales — are always a part of her garden writing and lecturing, but never before has she gathered them together.

Pat Welsh was “born into a family of garden lovers from Yorkshire, England” (as she says in her author’s biography), the daughter of the 1930s actress Ruth Fischer-Smith and film producer Emerson Fischer-Smith (“His best movies were Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Men of Steel, and Tiger Bay, with Anna Mae Wong. The rest were not good, and he lost money. Poor Dad.”). Her grandmother was Lady Hattie Fischer-Smith, and Pat spent many hours in early childhood at the Gleddings and at Hoyle Court, her grandparents’ home as well. In her teen years, Pat lived on a family farm in Pennsylvania until the family moved to Southern California in 1945, where she attended Hollywood High School and college at Scripps, Claremont. She has lived in Del Mar 38 years, where she and Louis raised two children, Francesca and Wendy. Grandchildren are now frequent visitors to the Welsh garden.

Still limping slightly from knee replacement surgery three months before, Pat motions for me to follow her into a garden bed next to the vegetable patch. She’s decided to plant some Spanish lavender and about a dozen California poppies. In a month her garden will be part of a Del Mar Garden Club tour fundraiser, and she wants this area to get a little quick color. Normally, she lets most of her poppies spring up from seed in the perennial bed nearby.

Pat sits in the midst of her garden on a backless chair, sliding the lavender out of the pots, and loosening the root balls with her bare fingers. She is tall and quite lean — thinner than I can remember her ever being — and her eyes have taken on added intensity. She is strong and swims a half-mile several times a week. Gardening, the way she does it, is also good exercise.

“This is a lovely plant,” she says. “See this mat of roots on the bottom? I just take it off and loosen the sides.” Her speech is distinctly accented, her enunciation flawless. She talks with the enthusiasm of a natural teacher. I have never heard her talk about gardening without getting excited. There isn’t a spadeful of her garden that she hasn’t sat in, dug up, pruned, watered, probed and, perhaps most significant, thought about. She even tromps around on the roof of her house occasionally, adjusting movable trellis panels while leaning perilously over the patio. This is a vigorous woman who goes at it. She is very pretty, but not at all dainty.

As we dig small holes with our trowels, we have to be careful not to hit the drip lines that hide like moist, dark veins a few inches beneath the surface.

“Normally I would have planted this lavender — Lavendula stoechas ‘Ottoquast’ — in the fall, but it’s a very strange thing about the nursery business. Instead of being able to get everything when you want it, which might be in fall, they give it to you when it’s in bloom, because that’s when gardeners like to buy it. This one and French lavender are the two best lavenders for here, and they work much better than English lavender. This doesn’t have the same lovely fragrance when you pinch it, but it is so beautiful and it will last a good three to four years. It will get two to three feet high and three to four feet wide.”

I asked if she’d ever had any formal garden training. “No, never did. I was raised in a gardening family. Learned by osmosis and practice and by a vast amount of reading and found this was where my interest lay. And becoming an editor and teaching gardening at UCSD. If you teach a subject, you must learn a subject very well. And researching for articles and television taught me an awful lot. I’ve also always been a garden writer with my hands in the soil, learning by doing and making mistakes.”

She hands me a sprig of what appears to be a weed trying to get a roothold in the area. Plucking another with thumb and forefinger, she pops the unwashed leaf area into her mouth and starts chewing, tossing the tiny, sandy root over her shoulder. Her garden is free of pesticides.

“These are cilantro. It’s gritty. I keep some that has gone to seed every year and hang it in my potting shed. Then I shake it out and it grows around the edges of the garden. But look, also; chickweed is the main winter weed of my garden, and in a way I don’t mind because it’s edible.”

She pulls up the tiny plant, its leaves not so feathery as cilantro, and eats it.

“Don’t confuse it with scarlet pimpernel, which has a pink flower. This has a white flower and it’s a better antioxidant than almost anything other than spinach, so I eat a little every day when I’m out in the garden. In the summer purslane is the main weed here. Both these weeds are a good sign that you have productive soil. Weeds tell you a lot. Some tell you you have poor soil. And borage comes up like a weed in my garden. It’s a delicious flower. I’ll eat one first so you know. Delicious! I just destroyed some humongous ones that were almost high as my head, so I’m letting all the seedlings come up.”

When Pat talks, she often puts unusual emphasis on one word or syllable in every sentence or two. For example, “weed” becomes “weeeed!” on a slightly higher note. Tune in to Parliament on the BBC and you’ll hear the same speech pattern — but not when they’re being argumentative, only persuasive.

As we plant, we’re careful about placing each one just so and at a precise depth. It reminds me of preparing a child for the first day of school — combing hair, tucking in shirttails. So often in my own garden I plant quickly with only a general idea of putting a plant here and there. We were being careful, and it felt good.

“I am incredibly concerned about where they go. I think I spend just oodles of time choosing their spot. I hem and haw. It slows me down, but I don’t really care. When I went to the nursery yesterday I had this whole huge area to plant, and I only bought a few plants. Three of the lavenders and a lot of the poppies. In other words, make a statement, have a theme instead of one of everything.

“Many of the better gardens aren’t the ones with the most plants. I don’t think of gardening as a way to collect rare and unusual plants. Now I know a lot of people do, and I respect that. I enjoy the diversity of gardens and gardeners with different attitudes. When I go to those gardens that are filled with everything rare. I’m fascinated. But that’s not my ideal. My ideal is to use what grows well, is easy to grow, and to arrange it in a beautiful and romantic way. That’s a different kind of garden.”

Finished planting, I go to get the hose and hand it to her carefully, winding it through the beds.

“This looks beautiful now that we’re finished. A lovely curve. We’ve made a very pretty look here. It really works to look at a garden and dream about it a lot. I will look and look and think and think, even with a desire in my heart for some inspiration to come to me from some other space. Whereas if you dash to the nursery with the idea that today I’m going to get everything I need and you don’t find it, you might get the wrong thing. 1 think it’s a slow process. Gosh, this is really pleasing!”

We take a break by touring the garden. She carries an unusual, small galvanized bucket with a lid. When I ask what’s inside, she shows me the chopped banana peels from her and Lou’s last few breakfasts and lunches. At one point she steps into a shoulder-high rose bush, oblivious to the wickedly spined canes, and ducks her head down to its base.

I hear the bucket clanking as she opens it, then buries the peels beneath mulch.

Thinking she’ll be torn bloody, I move to help her, but she quickly backs out of the bush on her own. The canes, which had closed over her blue work shirt and back, seem to part for her with a gentle wave. Not a scratch.

“I’m usually off in my dream world,” she continues, “but not thinking about something else — thinking about gardening. And that's why gardening is so therapeutic. When I was younger I was always thinking of the next thing I was going to do here. Always rushing. Feeling that there are so many jobs I can never get done. Now that I’m older I’m slower, but I enjoy it so much more! If something doesn’t get done, the hell with it! I’m just going to do what I can do. If there are a few weeds, so what?

“I wrote a little poem that just came to me out of the blue two weeks ago when I was out here weeding, and I’m going to have it made in bronze and hang it in my garden. ‘For every rose, there is a thorn / For each garden flower, an errant seed / If you should view my plot with scorn / Come back someday and help me weed!’ ”

She laughs, and it echoes off the surrounding cypress trees, the bank of scarlet clover, the shrubs that hide the road.

“The reason for my shrubs is not only protection from the road but also bird habitat. In order to have mockingbirds, for example, you need to have tall trees or telephone poles for them to go up on and sing and say, ‘This is my territory,’ and also shrubbery for them to hide in. They particularly favor bottlebrush, so I have one over there. They love to nest in it. They may be attracted by the flowers, I don’t know. To me their song is music. I think they’re as beautiful as an English nightingale, if not more so. The sound of a singing bird at night just wafts me to sleep in the happiest way, like the sound of the sea.

“My earliest memory is waking up in my baby carriage and looking up at a wall covered with Virginia creeper, and it was filled with birds — singing birds. I just smiled at that wonderful wall full of birds and thought, ‘Wow, isn’t this a wonderful world I’ve woken up into?’ I remember that so vividly, even the smell of the interior of the great big perambulator, the sound it made when I kicked, the squeak. I used to think that was at Hoyle Court, my grandparents’ home, where I often was in my early years, but I looked at photographs recently to choose some for my book and I discovered that outside the house where I was born there is a wall covered with Virginia creeper. It was undoubtedly that. To me as a baby it looked like a vast expanse...filled with birds. A singing wall.”

We begin to fork over the main vegetable bed, which occupies most of an area roughly 15 feet square. Rock walls hem it in. Downslope is a picnic table and benches, umbrella, and two redwood garden chairs. This patio is separated from the house by a fairly long, meandering walk downhill from the house, but it is where Pat and Lou sit during the warmer months.

The soil is very friable, almost like chocolate powder in spots, yet we add still more chicken manure and amendment. It is a Welsh ritual, and it happens at least twice a year. For this we wear gloves, digging out a double handful of the smelly stuff, tossing it across the soil, then dragging the sack so we can broadcast a little farther.

“I grew up with this stuff,” she says. “Ours was a chicken farm, and it’s the subject of my best chapter. My mother and the farm. As I say in the new book, I found out a while ago what makes a good garden writer. I was at a garden writers’ conference, and every single one of us there had grown up on a chicken farm! Because you once grew everything with this manure, you naturally think you have a green thumb and ought to tell everybody else how to do it.”

This wasn’t always a vegetable bed. Once there was a “forest” here of eucalyptus and Monterey cypress, planted by Frances and John Wright, but Pat cut them down when she realized she needed a large sunny area as a television gardening set, both for her local work and several videos she did for Better Homes and Gardens. Watching her tapes, I’m convinced that she is the Julia Child of gardening, right down to the accent. In fact, she’s won an Emmy and several national garden writer awards but didn’t much pursue any frenetic career in television or journalism. Book writing suits her better, for with this she can be only a wall away from Lou. Their two offices are in former bedrooms, side by side, joined by an opening along one of Wright’s famous window walls. As she writes, she’ll sometimes call out to him when she’s particularly pleased with the way something sounds, “Now I’ve got them!” Her prose is as compelling as she is, so loaded with encouragement and exhortations (without being banal), that readers tend to carry her book with them to the nurseries.

Other books have come from this property. Lou, with his stentorian, rumbling voice, white hair, and expressive eyebrows, joins us for a lunch of sandwiches, apples, and iced tea in the garden. He recalls his parents, Frances and John, who lived in the house uphill from Lou and Pat’s. The young married couple earned their property from Lou’s parents as payment for a case that Lou handled for them when he was a lawyer in Los Angeles in the 1950s. They’ve lived in Del Mar ever since.

“Now, when John Lloyd Wright wrote My Father Who Is on Earth... ” I begin to ask.

“Mother wrote it,” Lou corrects me. “John supplied all the information and told her the stories, and they worked together in 1946. John sent a copy of it to his dad with a note. His dad then sent it back with notes in the margin and said, ’Send me a clean copy.’ Of course, some of these notes in the margin were — you know — they were dueling on this one. John then wrote back, again on the margin of the book, and sent him a clean copy. Well, these copies, I felt, were very valuable, and I gave them to the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University. We discussed how it would be wonderful if they put out an addition with all these marginal notes. It’s a conversation between father and son on the margin of a book. Well, they finally got around to doing it, and we’re very pleased.”

“They [the publishers] have a lovely comment in this edition,” Pat adds, “about the day they came to get it — this wonderfully precious book — and they even mentioned the flowers in the garden. It is nicely printed, nicely presented. It is a joy to have it.

“The Wrights were such marvelous characters,” she continues. “[John] always wore a big ten-gallon hat — a Stetson. One of our children pointed to him once and said ‘bot’ for his hat, because she couldn’t pronounce ‘hat.’ For years they called him Grandbot. He carried a cane. And Frances was always dressed impeccably in flowing silk shirts. She was a tiny person who held herself beautifully. She had marvelous posture. She wore bright, colorful things and usually dripped with silver jewelry, and she wore high heels all day long. They were well-known characters around La Jolla and much loved there, being so colorful coming down the street together. They went shopping in La Jolla once a week, and they’d go into Magnin or Saks and sit and shop. John was always with Frances. They went to lunch at the La Valencia.”

Frances advised Pat on her garden and house early and often and was a “big influence.” A painter, Frances had a heightened sense of color and even chose the interior scheme for the Welshes’ new home. John designed the one-story home to rest back against the hill, pushing the excavated dirt toward the ocean to create a large lawn area and berm. In Wrightian fashion, the furniture inside is built-in, as are the extensive bookshelves. Even the slatted-redwood light fixtures were designed by John.

“I was 27. The Wrights were very strong characters with very strong ideas, many of which were wonderful, a few of which I disagreed with. But you really didn’t openly disagree with the Wrights, because they knew, and they were personages who just exuded character and strength. I did not know much in those days about anything except what I’d studied, so I came very much under their influence and learned a great deal from them. For instance, Frances more than any other person taught me to write.

“She influenced my gardening in many ways. She’d say, ‘Pat, if I were you, you’ve got to do something to stop the sand from going down on the street. You’ve got to plant ivy.’ So I planted ivy. And she’d say, ‘It would be good if you had some tall trees here. Plant Monterey pine.’ I planted Monterey pine, because I didn’t know then that it would become a sick tree. Then I began to study and learn the way of gardening here. That was my way. I just quietly did it on my own.

“I remember something we differed on, and I soon found out I’d better just keep my mouth shut about this. I came from a heritage of gardening and believing in mulching and compost piles. So much so that I’ve even been referred to as Pat Mulch on occasion! And Frances came from a heritage that really was more Californian — though she didn’t come from here — and believed in sweeping up every leaf. If it was a eucalyptus leaf, that was sensible. So I got into the raking and sweeping thing.

“Frances wanted to cut down her eucalyptus trees in order to have more garden, but John wouldn’t let her do it because he loved them. So she continually had them trimmed. As for me I wanted to cut my eucalyptus trees down also, and I did it. In that case she didn’t disapprove.

“After the kids grew up, it was her idea to get rid of the lawn and put in a patio. And it turned out to be a very good one. But the morning after the bricks were in and lawn was gone, I thought I would die, I was so unhappy. I didn’t have my green glade outside the window. I felt, ‘Oh my God, it’s like a prison.’ So I went out and I got pots. And I decorated the whole thing up with colorful flowers in pots. Within a few weeks I liked it better. Frances was right.

“To give you an example of what they knew and I didn't, Frances chose marvelous colors for our house. I just went along with the whole thing. At that age I would not have been capable of decorating our house as she knew how, and I just totally cooperated. There were a few things in the house that I wanted other than what was designed, but there wasn’t much getting them. With a Wright, you know, you get what you get. But other than that, in general, the house has been the most wonderful, happy house for me.

“After the Wrights died, I suddenly got my own feelings and realized I wanted all the walls white. I didn’t paint the woodwork, but I painted the rest of the interior white. And my garden became more and more typical of the way I felt.

“But here’s an interesting story. I was sitting in our bedroom once looking at a painting of Frances’s, and I suddenly realized something. It was a painting with Madame Butterfly in it, and that was the name of the painting. Madame Butterfly was there, on her porch. And Pinkerton was going to sea in a ship. Now Frances thought of herself as Madame Butterfly and often called herself that. So I assessed this was a depiction of her, and maybe my husband (Pinkerton) when he got married...married me. But by golly, there was I dancing in the garden, and the garden was filled with flowers as I now grow. Full of orange California poppies. And I know that she painted me as the dancing figure because I looked closely and had never noticed before that there was a P— a big P for Pat — on me. So there was the triangle, in a sense, expressed in this painting, and there in her dream-self while painting, unknowing of what she was doing, she painted me dancing in my future garden.”

She stops talking for a minute as a blue jay lands on the picnic table and hops toward part of a sandwich left on a plate at our elbows.

“Well, hi, sweetheart,” she says, as if talking with another grandchild. “Yes, go ahead and have some if you want it.”

The bird cocks its head and looks at her as if to say, “Are you sure you’re finished?”

“Take the crust. Yes, that’s for you. Good!” The bird snips off a portion with its beak and flies off. She tells me that this is a third- or fourth-generation jay that she and Lou have trained to eat out of their hands or join them at the table for scraps when they’re finished.

Thinking about the transition from a life close to the in-laws to a time in later years when she is now the family matriarch, I ask Pat if age has allowed her more freedoms.

Or does she, because of things like her knee operation, dread it?

“Age improves life, and that is about rhythms. Gardeners are in touch with the seasons, but also the rhythms of their own lives. You get older, have aches and pains, and there may be some benefits to this.

“Sometimes I think these are hard to express in literature. In a book I’m writing now, I leave some of my characters forever young, at the height of their life. I love having them be like that. People tell me, who’ve read it, that they want to know what happened. Do I go back and show them aging or leave them?

“After my mother died, she came to me in a dream. She had been inexpressibly beautiful (when alive). She probably was the most gorgeous woman I ever saw in my life. In the dream, she was at the height of her beauty, and she lay her face on my pillow and gave me this most marvelous message. Just for me. I won’t repeat it because I don’t want to let it out. I want to hold it close in my heart. Also, she was young. Even though we grow old on the, outside and get lines and perhaps even give up gardening or doing what we used to do and just sit back and think over our life...nonetheless there is that spark of youth always within us.

“I must tell you I’m much happier now than when I was a young person. It seems to me I worried so much. About things not worth worrying about. About what people thought or about trying to please people or about putting my foot in my mouth, which I was always doing. Or just the struggle of life, trying to please.

“I wanted to please my mother-in-law. My mum never put this onto me. I wanted to please her just because I loved her, but I wanted to win my mother-in-law’s approval. Lou dreamed just last night that she finally approved of me!” Pat and Lou both laugh easily when reminiscing about Lou’s parents. They were “enormously fond” of the Wrights and are still great admirers of the creative bonfire next door that burned bright during their first two decades in Del Mar.

I slide into the passenger’s seat of Pat’s Ford Explorer on a Tuesday morning in May. We’re driving to Valley Center for a meeting of the Dos Valles Garden Club. Pat will give a slide-illustrated lecture after the club’s regular meeting and luncheon. I’ve seen her, on name alone, draw several hundred people to one of her talks and demonstrations. Today’s group will be smaller but probably no less enthusiastic.

She drives across the San Dieguito River on Jimmy Durante Boulevard, then turns east on Via de la Valle. We’ll take the Del Dios Highway route to Interstate 15 north, then cut over to Valley Center via Gopher Canyon, Castle Road, and Lilac Road. The hills are green as Ireland, and as we drive east we see water still spilling over the lip of Lake Hodges dam, the rising mist backlit by reflections off the lake.

I comment about how San Diego’s backcountry deer population must be happy with all this new cover in the hills and ask her if she has any animal stories that she can share that aren’t in the book.

“I told quite a lot about animals in the book, because they’re one of the problems we must face in the garden, but there’s one that I couldn’t fit in.

“When our daughter Wendy and her husband, Larry, moved to the East Coast, they bought a darling little house, all narrow and up and down. I went back to visit them and found that they had a marvelous vegetable garden in the back, in the same location where they’d discovered the remains of an old vegetable garden. All they did to protect it was put a little bit of bird netting around the bottom to keep the rabbits out.

“They had everything they needed, tomatoes, everything. And Wendy told me, ‘You know, Mom, the remarkable thing is there are deer here, but for some reason our garden doesn’t get bothered.’ Months went by. Nobody else in the neighborhood, because it was a very wooded village in New Jersey, could grow vegetables because of the deer. Well, finally the next-door neighbor, an old man, said when she got to know him, ‘Your garden, before you bought your house, was owned by a princess from Transylvania. At least that’s what she said she was. And she grew vegetables there. That’s what you found, the remains of her garden. And in summer she kept the deer away by sleeping in a sleeping bag right next to the garden!’

“So the joke was that she was still there, sleeping in Wendy’s garden!

“One night in the middle of winter, Wendy woke up to feed the baby. She went and stood in her dining room, looking out into the moonlit garden, and there, standing in the snow, in the middle of this wonderful, woodsy garden that had trees down both sides, and wisteria in spring — oh, it was terrific! — was this marvelous stag, antlers and all, in the moonlight, right in the middle of the garden.”

Animals, like the birds that live in her Del Mar garden, are important elements of Welsh’s overall garden scheme. Despite being metaphysical about the importance of gardening in her life, she is almost always practical when describing a garden’s elements.

Searching for a definition of her ideal garden, I read to her American landscape architect Fletcher Steele’s comment on his own notion of garden beauty. Considered the link between Beaux Arts formalism and modern landscape design, Steele was an artist of grand estate gardens, primarily in the East.

“ ‘I want all my places to seem the homes of children and lovers. I want them to be comfortable and if possible slightly mysterious by day, with vistas and compositions appealing to the painter. I want them to be delirious in the moonlight.... I believe that there is no beauty without ugliness and that it should not be otherwise. Both are capable of stinging us to live. Contrast is more true to me than undeviating smugness. The chief vice in gardens...is to be merely pretty.’”

It is one of my favorite garden quotations. Pat, hearing it, is quiet for a moment, concentrating on the road. She drives fast. She considers herself a sportswoman, and she’s confident around tools, machines, oceans, and animals, sometimes to the point of self-admitted foolishness, such as the time she dislocated her arm bodysurfing in the shore break on the Kona Coast.

“I absolutely love that quote,” she says, finally. “You can hardly improve on it. But I’m not very good at dealing with the dark side of life — the ugliness. Too much sweetness and light in me, maybe. What he wrote has the passion of life in it.

“But if you just ask me, I wouldn’t say that, I’d say this. Gardening is more than just plunking a plant in the ground. Not just collections of plants or a beautiful arrangement.

“A garden shouldn’t be taken in by one glance. You should look around to see hidden things.

“A garden should have an atmosphere of romance — one of its most important aspects. One of the ways it does this is have within it all the basic elements of gardens. A good garden always does. For one thing it’s in this way that it expresses the past. I heard Bob Smaus [garden editor for the Los Angeles Times ] once say, ‘Many of the best gardens are made up of pieces of the past.’

“Here are some other elements.

“Some kind of water treatment, other than the garden hose. Not just water that lies there either. Moving water to cut out the outside world.

“Some vistas, even if you have hidden them within walls as the Japanese do. A feeling of distance, even if it’s an illusion.

“Specimen trees. A sort of sacred tree.

“Statuary in some form. It ties us in to the long history of the garden, back to the Greeks and the Romans, to ancient times and man’s most basic feeling of wanting to protect what he has. Protective statues to feel that there are actual spirits in the garden. Nymphs or something. Though imaginary, they are important to the atmosphere.

“Paths leading somewhere, taking you somewhere, always with a focal point to arrive at.

“And I would say something to eat. A food plant. That’s where gardens began: for food. If one can’t have a vegetable garden, at least have an herb garden so you can chop them and put some in your cooking. Or a lemon tree.

“Plants of fragrance. Something to waft in the air and bring bees.

“There’s probably more that I’m forgetting, but you can see my answer is very different than his. It’s more practical. How do you do this? It’s wonderful to read what he says, but how do you do it? I’m telling you how. You bring in all these parts, and they all do what he says.

“Maybe the garden should also remind you of some long-forgotten place. And, I should say, that a garden should have a sense of its own place. Something that bubbles up from the soil of that very spot.”

I ask where she turns for inspiration.

“There is no doubt I pick up inspiration everywhere. Other people’s gardens. When we go to Europe. That’s a strong inspiration. And in books. Beautiful books with beautiful pictures are a great inspiration. And magazines. But the greatest inspiration comes out of your own heart. Your own soul. For instance, the place itself tells you what to do. I had a spot where nothing would grow. This particular place was kind of awkward. It looked ugly, and it drove me wild and I even talked to friends about it. I said, ‘Look, nothing grows here, everything’s ratty, what will I do with it? It gets too much shade in the afternoon, too much sun in the morning, and the soil is always dry. And there are roots there.’

“One suggested a raised bed, but that sounded like a lot of work. So I kind of asked life. Asked the place what to do, and it just popped into my head. Put in a bench. So I put a bench there, with a climbing rose, and pots piled around it with lovely colorful flowers, and everything grows like mad. I love to sit there, next to my Joseph’s Coat rose.”

“So there is a garden muse?” I say.

“Oh, definitely. It comes to me by asking, by wanting. No doubt that just as in a writing muse, the answers to questions drop into one’s head as if they don’t come from oneself. That is one of the most wonderful things about writing. Robert Louis Stevenson called them his gremlins, I think. Something that happens during his sleep. Many times I’m writing and a whole marvelous group of ideas come to me. It doesn’t seem to come from me, but from some other source. It is the same way with the garden. They seem given to me, sometimes spoken to me.”

We pull into the parking area at the community hall, an old converted schoolhouse that has been quite devastated by the practicality of someone who thought it best to fill in many of the windows. The club has gathered in the basement, and the pre-meeting social has the bare walls ringing with voices. A table full of plants is by the door. It appears to be an exchange area of free cuttings from epiphytes, geraniums, and anything else that will root.

The hostess greeting us is excited to meet Pat, who quickly moves into the room to scout out the best location for her slide projector. I hang behind for a moment by the door, taking in the scene.

“This is a serious club,” says the front desk hostess, startling me as she thrusts her palm toward my chest. “See this hand?”

I look at her callused, almost wizened little paw and nod approvingly. I can see some dirt under her fingernails and in the dark lines crosshatching her fingers, her badge of honor.

“We have eight master gardeners, too.”

I take a copy of Chaparral, their eight-page monthly newsletter. I note that their recent 15th standard flower show was a success, bringing in $517.35 despite a rainy day. "Compost must have a carbon-nitrogen ratio of about 30:1." And “there are just too many things that will need attending to in your garden to make a list this month, keep watering, planting, feeding, and controlling!”

It’s a friendly group, and soon we’re eating cheese soufflé, ginger cookie cups with lemon filling, fresh strawberries, fruit punch, and lots of black coffee. I walk past one woman sitting in the front row silently playing electronic poker with a small, palm-sized gizmo while she waits for Pat to begin speaking. The others — about 50 members — are chattering loudly.

Pat’s talk this day is on the history of San Diego gardening. It’s a new talk, and her shift to slide shows has left some garden clubs longing for the old days when she was best known for her plant demonstrations. That was when the dirt really started to fly. Like Julia Child thwacking chickens with a great cleaver, Pat was a robust, hands-on demonstrator who could transform a common $1.50 juniper into a stunning bonzai in about 15 minutes or turn some common wire, sphagnum moss, and succulents into an unusual Christmas wreath that had the audience almost running out the door to try it themselves.

Those talks required too many special trips to the nursery, lifting everything in and out of the back of her Explorer, and general running around. The clubs can’t afford enough of an honorarium for what ends up to be a full day or more of work, as much as she seems to enjoy it. And with her knee operation, she’s happier being a lecturer.

She begins with the mission era, a time of bare-dirt compounds and isolated orchards. Gradually, with the last of the Victorian era up to 1903, an interest in ornamental plants took hold in San Diego. The city bloomed, especially, with Balboa Park’s two expositions and the almost single-handed efforts of Kate Sessions.

The slides click by. It is a complete overview of why we garden the way we do. For example, she postulates about something I’d long wondered about — why such an interest in tropicals and subtropicals in San Diego? Despite our lack of water, we seem bent on transforming many of our gardens into steamy, equatorial swamps.

“One of the ideals that men brought back from the war was the ideal of the jungle,” she says, showing a slide of palms and bromeliads in a home garden. “They went to the South Pacific, saw jungles, came home — and back then water was plentiful here in Southern California, so they made their own jungles! Some still exist from those days. The Self-Realization Fellowship compound in Encinitas is a 1950s garden that has survived up to now very much unchanged.

“Some men who came back from the Pacific also fell in love with Japanese gardens — if not a garden, at least an accent that would remind them of a country whose beauty they so much loved when they were there.

“Or they created a jungle garden in a different way, like the late Bill Gunther in Del Mar, who put out many drought-resistant plants as well as thirsty ones. And he had wandering paths up and down his hillside much like the English.”

Gunther, whose house is near my own, used to invite me over occasionally to discuss a column he wrote for San Diego Home/Garden magazine. Many Del Mar residents still walk the shortcut path that he landscaped up the side of his property, between Hoska Drive and Crest Way. It is a deeply shaded, mysterious jungle path — a secret green tunnel that only residents know about.

Come to think of it, Gunther was in the Navy during the war.

After her last slide and gales of applause, she stands by one of the folding tables and signs books. Fifteen minutes later we’re back on the road for home, a 45-minute drive ahead of us.

I ask her about her husband, Lou, and his influence on her gardening.

“Well, he’s not a gardener, but he’s a great garden lover. I think he’s the greatest appreciator of my gardening skills, and every sunny day we have lunch out in the garden and we just say to each other, ‘We’re living in some kind of a heaven.’ When we go on a trip, he sometimes says to me, ‘Why did we ever go away?’ — here we are in this incredible spot, and he’ll say spontaneously how lucky we are to have this gorgeous garden back home. He’s very cued into beauty and nature. Also, he’s had some of the ideas. It was his idea to change the entranceway so that it went through the garden. When you come into the first ‘room’ in my garden, Lou thought of the pergola, which gave me the perfect place to grow a wisteria I always wanted to grow.”

Privacy is important to Pat, and her garden is not on regular view as some San Diego home gardens have been in the past, most notably the late Alice Menard’s garden in Lakeside. Yet both she and Lou are well-known local celebrities within their own circles. Lou, too, had a brief stint on television, playing himself — the judge — on a type of People's Court television show filmed in Los Angeles.

She laughs when I bring up the subject.

“I can tell you we never think of that. San Diego is a unique place with extremely nice, kind people for the most part, and it’s been a pleasure for both of us to have been so lovingly treated by the people here. I can say that so sincerely. I know Louis feels the same way. The lawyers to him are kind of like my garden club to me, this wonderful community of loving friends. We’re both so grateful for the way this town has treated us. It’s enriched our lives.

“I have, however, met many famous people, and one famous gardener comes to mind. Manchester Boddy. He was one of the great gardeners of Southern California. Descanso Gardens was once his private garden. He hybridized many camellias. He was a great newspaperman. Also a writer who wrote very well about gardens.

“He recognized in me someone who was very much cued into gardens, so when we had dinner together, which was quite often, because John was redesigning a house for him, he always asked me to sit next to him. He’d bend my ear with these wonderful stories, telling me how he’d developed a true lilac that would grow here. Not a California lilac, but an Eastern lilac, and so on. He also told me how he helped found the All-America rose prize, because he’d developed a great many roses.

“And I think, finally, it was he who made me become a garden writer.

“He was enormously charming. Enormously kind. I remember a story that [San Diego nurseryman] Howard Asper, who worked for him, told me. Manchester got a bulldozer and said, ‘Now, Howard, I want you to bulldoze this pond out, but you must be very careful when you’re putting the (earthen] bridge in that you don’t lose control of the bulldozer. Don’t get the bulldozer in this spot because the ground is soft.’

“Howard was a young man at the time, and he went ahead and did everything that Manchester told him to. We used to call him Chester, by the way. But when Howard came to that spot, he wanted to get the bulldozer over to that area, and he disobeyed Chester. The bulldozer sank into the pond. Disappeared all the way in! I think it ruined the bulldozer. When Chester came home that night, Howard was so scared. This was a man who was a very high-powered guy and could get very angry. But all he did was look at the bulldozer, never saying, ‘Well, you did it!’ or anything. He just said, ‘Well, I guess we’d better get a new bulldozer.’ ”

Hearing her talk about Boddy made me think of the famous story about French Marshal Lyautey. A gardener once warned the marshal that a certain tree the marshal had asked him to plant would take 100 years to reach maturity.

“In that case,” said Lyautey, “there’s no time to lose. Plant it this afternoon!”

Did she ever feel that way?

“No. I don’t feel that way! It’s totally unreasonable, but I feel as though I’ve got all the time to lose. That’s the way I feel and it’s wonderful. One of the stupidest things anyone can do in a garden is plant something just because it grows fast.”

“So you have a much more relaxed attitude,” I say.

“I have a relaxed attitude about many things,” she says.

“So if not concerned about things taking a long time to grow, what is your attitude about life and death in the garden?” I ask.

She drives past Chino Nojo farm in the bottomlands below Rancho Santa Fe. The fields have been dressed for the summer corn crop.

“I think that gardeners learn to deal with death because gardening is about death as well as life. No getting around it. Death is part of life, so when it comes along, we’re going to have to deal with it. We might as well accept it. You know the guy who said, ‘I thought it would pass me by.’ It doesn’t. We have to kill animals sometimes in the garden in order to protect our plants. I think this is important. You’re taking part in the whole dance of life by experiencing that darker side. You have to chop things down. When a plant is no good or dies or is sick all the time, throw it out! is my opinion. Pull it up by the roots and throw it out. Or as somebody said, give it a decent burial.”

“But some people are very sensitive to plants. Reacting to their feelings and all that,” I protest.

“Some of those tests were fakes. It’s nonetheless true, but you can’t test it with a machine. Anyway, go on,” she says.

“How do you answer critics who might be appalled by this brutal attitude? It sounds a little callous. I know you’re not that way, but....”

“Well, I may be! I was raised on a farm, and part of me may be calloused, and maybe you have to be to an extent.

The point is why grow something that’s sick. You get rid of it. That’s my opinion. A lot of people are very misguided. They have this idea that you nurse all these sick things back to health. Well, if it’s a very valuable plant, fine. But if it’s just a plant you got at the nursery and now it’s had its day, go buy another, because you’re giving someone a good job. And it becomes compost, which gives its life back to the earth. It just goes a little shorter than our lifetime. Remember what Walt Whitman said, ‘Oh this compost....’ It’s about giving our bodies back.”

“Do you have dreams about gardening?” I say.

“Many times, but the most stunning dream I’ve had is this. One day I was repotting my camellias. That night I dreamed the following dream. I was standing at the bottom of a very steep mountain, and I knew, or someone had told me, that there was a tree that Jesus had planted and it was growing on top of the mountain. Being a plant lover, I wanted to see it. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s got to be 2000 years old!’ And I imagined a huge rubber tree, all spread out, a ficus sort of thing.

“I looked very closely at the bottom of the mountain and saw that there were three paths going up. One path was a slippery slope almost like glass, and it was on a ridge, so I couldn’t go up that way. One was sandy, so that every step you took you’d slide back three. So I knew I couldn’t go up that. And the next one had steps so big that each was almost as tall as a man. I didn’t know how I could climb up that. But I still wanted with all my heart to get to the top of the mountain!

“And then, the moment I knew how much I wanted to be there — bang-o! — I was standing on top. Just wanting it had gotten me there. And there was the tree that Jesus had planted. By golly, instead of it being the huge tree that I had imagined in my head in this dream, it wasn’t at all. It was a camellia in a pot, like the camellias I’d been planting that very day. I thought to myself, ‘Well, my goodness, this isn’t what I imagined at all. Do you suppose that Jesus had planted a camellia from a seed maybe, or something else, and this is from that plant, or someone took a seed or cutting and planted this?’

“Then I felt, ‘Well, who cares anyway?’ I even noticed that his camellia was a bit sick, so I wanted to fix it. I got down on my knees and started to fertilize it.

“Well, I woke up straight from that dream and wrote it down. I felt this was a wonderful dream and had some marvelous meaning, but I had to live this long to really understand it.

“I think it was saying...that I thought I would someday get to the top of the mountain and be enlightened. But what the dream told me is, ‘Listen, life is where you are — planting your little camellia. Life is not some place you’re going to. It’s where you are, doing what you’re doing in daily gardening or whatever it happens to be. For a painter it’s painting. For a house painter it’s painting a house. For me it’s gardening or writing about it, and I’m just supposed to do that.

“That’s what I got out of it. It seems to me like a most wonderful dream.”

“Is gardening ephemeral?” I ask.

“Yes, it’s one of the most ephemeral of the arts, but who cares? What may be a lifetime to an ant is a few days for me. What may be considered in my garden ‘a long time’ doesn’t much compare to the life of a Praxiteles statue. Even it may be dust in 2000 years. What difference really? It’s all the flicker of an eyelash.”

“Do you believe in past lives?”

“I used to very strongly. And in my 40s, I even dreamed that I was in them. I had figured out several, and some had great meaning. But I’d rather not talk about them. I believed then, but now I don’t know. Now I find it much better to not be quite so sure about everything. But, you know, in a sense, that what you believe to be so is so or becomes so. For me, now, I find it better to keep my beliefs kind of vague. They are simple ones. The more complicated they get, the more trouble we get into.”

“Many of us think we will become more sure of things with age....”

“I become less sure with every year. Yes, it was very exciting when I thought that I was going to be enlightened someday! Hoo-hoo! All a delusion. I was self-deluded.

“People cued in to nature very often have mystical experiences where they feel a presence too vast too, enormous, too beyond understanding, beyond anything that you can put in words.... A garden can be a spiritual space if that’s what you want it to be and that’s what you’ve made it. There’s no doubt about it. However, no more so than day-to-day life in any other way.”

“Do you have a favorite nature writer?”

“William Wordsworth has always been dear to my heart, especially ‘Tintern Abbey.’ I think it is my favorite of all his poems. And 'The Prelude.’ And I feel very strongly about Ralph Waldo Emerson. My grandmother was a Unitarian of the old school. Lou and I, when we were first married, went to the Grand Canyon and sat on the edge and read Emerson aloud. I think there’s a strong strain of that in me. He’s one of the greatest of American writers. Too little read, I think.

“Emerson’s idea was of the Over Soul, and there’s a truth to this that can speak to us and actually give us direction. The minute we know that — it’s a great benefit.

"We don’t have to feel that we’re handicapped by our own small brain and perhaps inferior talents. We may feel we have suddenly become superior, not because of ourselves, but because of something that seems to feed through us, as if we’ve become a conduit for something quite apart from ourselves. It is a wonderful feeling. No longer is one tied to the feeling, ‘Oh, I can’t do it!’ And you just sit down and do it or you just start to dig...and wonderful things start to happen.”

“We can pursue happiness in the garden because of its strong connection to nature?” I wonder.

“Happiness must be a byproduct. Jefferson talked about the pursuit of happiness, and we all have that right. But Jefferson himself is a wonderful example of a man who didn’t seem to pursue happiness so much as pursue life. To me, the joy of life that leads to happiness is living with your whole heart, enjoying this gorgeous planet, friends, your children, loved ones, and doing something that you love to do. I guess I’m a doer.

“The Bhagavad Gita is the perfect text for it — to pick one out of the Orient — because it’s the yoga of work. When I’m working, I’m happy. I don’t start the day thinking, ‘How shall I be happy today?’ and ‘What am I going to do today?’ I’m so lucky, so blessed by God or by whatever the great creative power in the universe is, that I was born loving to do so many things. I love to paint, ride horseback, garden, be with my friends...there just seem to be so many things that I can’t get them all in.”

Back in Del Mar, she invites me in for a cup of tea. This time we sit on the upper patio near the hanging fuchsias, she in a redwood chaise, I in a matching armchair. Part of the leg of her chaise has been chewed by beetles or termites. Nothing is perfect in this almost overwhelmingly beautiful garden, not even the furniture. Sunlight still finds its way through the pines and cypress to warm the bricks at our feet. She offers me a chocolate chip cookie and a biscotti. The tea is hot, English. The mockingbird is on top of the highest tree, calling, clinging to the tip that waves in the breeze off the ocean.

“Isn’t that lovely,” says Pat, leaning her head all the way back to look up.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad