Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Twelve years ago I bought a home. This was monumental; I'd dreamed of owning a home since I was a child. Even better than the house, there was a large yard that was effectively a blank slate waiting for an artist's muse. A large rectangle of lawn covered most of the yard with shrubs and a few rose bushes around the perimeter.

Lawn wasn't on my agenda. It's not only a water hog that needs feeding, mowing and edging, I'm deathly allergic to it. Sitting on grass gives me red welts; mowing it triggers asthma. The lawn had to go.

Over the next two years I created a haven for birds and butterflies. The lawn was replaced with a variety of groundcovers such as wooly and creeping thyme, Scottish moss and miniature succulents. Mounds of dirt bordered with decorative rock were filled with flowers and dwarf lemon and lime trees. Raised beds held strawberries and kitchen herbs. The final touches included a semi-dwarf Blenheim apricot, Arctic Rose nectarine and Santa Rosa plum in the backyard and Red Gravenstein and Sierra Beauty apple trees in the front. The classic suburban look was gone, replaced by a county garden.

A few years later, out of room in my own garden, I added a yellow nectarine on the vacant county land nearby. If I lived a little farther inland from the Coast, I would have added a couple of cherry trees. I was living my childhood dream of a home of my own with beds of flowers and fruit trees galore. I only wished for another acre to add more trees and a large vegetable garden. It was paradise right here in Santa Cruz – my dream garden.

Well, sort of. My garden, in technical parlance, is a "studied wild garden." This means that it looks kind of like a woodland park with flowers interspersed, beautiful flagstone walking paths meandering throughout. Or, maybe I should say, it kind of looks this way. (I'll explain in a moment.) Visitors exclaim about its beauty, especially as just beyond my back fence is a 100-acre urban wildlife park owned by the State, creating a pastoral backdrop. It's peaceful here most of the time. Quiet except for the squawking of jays and crows, the flutter of doves in flight, Hairy woodpeckers drilling the pine snags and Red Shouldered hawks calling for a mate. Birds and butterflies fill the garden year-round as we're on a flyway. All part of the fantasy I had envisioned.

The ideal scenario would be no fence at all. However, Southern Pacific has a railroad spur between my fence and the park. The train comes through four mornings a week, bringing coal and sand to the Davenport Cement Plant. It returns four afternoons a week with cement and sometimes wood from Big Creek Lumber. This is a romantic vision, one I enjoy very much as I grew up with trains in my hometown and it adds to the country garden atmosphere.

As always, however, there are problems, even in paradise. In this case, seven days and nights a week, people walk along the railway. Grafitti artists see endless opportunities for marking their territories. It's a straight shot for homeless encampments and a convenient place to sell drugs. Yes, there are folks walking dogs or just meandering, but there are also occasional angry drunks and shouting middle school boys throwing rocks, testing out their lawless fantasies. So the fence has remained, along with a barrier of blackberry brambles instead of barbed wire.

The first couple of years I had a sprinkling of delicious fruit, which I begrudgingly shared with the raccoons. I proudly talked to the trees, encouraging them to mature and produce enough fruit for eating and jam and pie making. Yes, I spent time pruning and weeding, but it was a labor of love. I put in a drip system and felt pleased with my environmentally correct fantasy-come-true.

Then I launched The Vanilla.COMpany and was soon working 60 to 80 hours a week. Days, nights and weekends. I wanted time off to walk and relax which didn't necessarily equate to pruning, weeding and watering.

I had naively assumed that perfect lawns with flowers bordering the edges and boxy hedges required more time than mine to remain perfectly manicured. Neither the look nor the effort suited me. Studied wild was my dream: just let it do its own thing. How wrong was that! I have since learned why people put in dry rock stream beds, wood chips and gravel paths.

My lovely dwarf fruit trees continued to grow and soon were the size of standard trees, their branches intertangling and breaking. The beautiful ground covers aggressively battled each other in a Darwinian tango. The weaker ones succumbed; the others crept over the decorative rocks and flagstones, obliterating the walkways. Beautiful clumps of scabiosa, with bright pink flowers in the Spring, which had blended with the blue flowers on the isotoma, grew together in the front yard, overwhelming the isotoma and flowing over the curb and into the street. Neighbors were fascinated and suggested we leave it to see if would cross the street completely. Easy for them to say; they weren't paying the water bill. And you can imagine how attractive the ground cover would look covered with tire treads and skid marks. Even the roses, the salvias, the coreopsis and the penstomon grew to mammoth proportions. I'm not sure why this happened. There was little time to cut back the dead flowers, they rarely were fed on schedule and yet, the entire garden rapidly outgrew my carefully installed drip system.

And then the gophers arrived. They ate the vegetables I'd interspersed with flowers and some of the best lily bulbs. They turned the entire garden into a miniature golf course. I even caught them walking along the raised beds above ground – right in front of my eyes! But this didn't slow down the growth of the rest of the garden and my attempts to fill their holes with mothballs and flooding did little to deter their own ideas of landscaping. And it didn't stop the trees from producing evermore abundant crops. Even the raccoons couldn't keep up with the fruit!

I looked forward to winters when I could stop dragging hoses with sprinkler heads around the garden and hacking away at the blackberries' relentless march over, under and around the fence and into the yard. Have you ever noticed how non-kink hoses do anyway? Or how those cute little twirling sprinklers break apart after four months? And how about the plant food getting wet and clumping in wads and then the boxes fall apart? Martha Stewart rarely talks about the downside of bountiful gardens. And why should she? With an army of assistants I wouldn't complain either!

In the winter we're told that serious gardeners pore through catalogs, looking for new hybrids, heirloom raspberries, sweeter squash and corn. Not me After three years of my garden any winter aspirations had vanished. I enjoy every minute of doing nothing for the garden. I can visit friends, go to movies, read a good novel. Then Spring arrives and amnesia hits. I've forgotten again how I had no life beyond my business and the garden from May until September. I'm thrilled with each beautiful bud, the aroma of lemon blossoms, the iris blooms. Oh, and the fruit trees' promise! Then reality hits and I wonder yet again why I hang onto studied wild when a desert cactus garden would save water, energy and…my sanity! Some Saguaros, Bishop's Hats and aloe, an expanse of white gravel and a few ceramic statues for effect.

But on warm summer afternoons I watch the hummingbirds drinking from the salvias, the Monarch, Painted Lady and Swallowtail butterflies dipping and fluttering, the hawks swooping down and calling, and I remember why I have worked so hard and diligently. It's one small spot that helps to erase some of my carbon footprint and provides a source of comfort for the creatures who come to visit. And after all, it's so hardy now, I only water once a week.


Cheryl Lage said...

What an oasis! Beautiful. Seems like it belongs to a worthy woman. Love your blog, thanks for coming by mine. :)

Tana said...

Dearest beautiful Patricia:

May I come visit, with my camera and my heart?


Anonymous said...

Some how I am receiving your news letter. Maybe the garden gods have brought you to me...I am a master gardener up in the inland north west...Patricia I feel like you are a sister I have lost and now found. I can so relate to you.