Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ghosts of Gardens Past

This past weekend, I broke ground on the new vegetable garden. My newly bought townhouse has a small back yard, and I can already see that this garden will be an adventure in rocks and compacted clay. I spent a few satisying hours shoveling out landscaping rock and boxing it up to be hauled away, then pulling up weed cloth and taking a few tentative stabs at the soil with the spading fork. It will need compost and manure, probably several years of it, but I’m game.
All the sweat and back spasms got me thinking about about the other gardens I’ve had over the years, each with its own distinct personality. Those gardens are like big, generous friends I once knew and then moved away from. Until now, I always rented, and I moved a lot. And every time, as I left a garden behind, I felt a hollow hole of regret open up inside me—who would take care of it now? Would the next person just rip this all out? And sometimes the questions were more existential, like: What does our work really amount to? Does it make a difference?

I still ask myself those questions, but even if those gardens are now (shudder) driveways and swimming pools, I still have the memories of all the soul-soothing work I did on them, and I have photos to prove it. So here now is installment 1 of gardens past: the first one.

Garden Past #1: Monte Sereno, 1984–1988

Oh my, look at that flannel shirt! I loved that shirt. This photo says “’87 Garden” on the back, so I was 25. This garden, nestled at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains, pretty much taught me everything: double-digging, woodworking, fence building, gopher-proofing, and how to lie on my back in the dirt and watch the clouds go by. In the photo, there’s a bean tower behind me, probably about eight feet high. On the wooden frame are sweet peas, which shouldn’t be flowering at the same time as the beans, so it must have been a cool summer.

I sort of inherited this garden. I was living in a one-room cottage (without a kitchen) that was once the maid’s quarters on a sprawling 1920s estate. Nextdoor were a broken-down greenhouse, a shed that had once held tractors and wagons, some abandoned pigpens, and a woodworking shop. The place had seen better days, and the gardener, who had worked there for more than 50 years, had just retired. I was renting the cottage from some friends, and we were left to take care of the place ourselves. So I had to learn in a hurry how to groom chrysanthemums—there were about 150 of them, scattered between two gardens—and divide iris rhizomes and prune cultivated blackberries. I knew zilch about gardening, so I armed myself with a thrift-store copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book, picked up a few tools at garage sales, and learned by the seat of my pants.

There were coyotes in the woods, lizards in the bougainvillea, and snakes in the grass. But the biggest challenge was gophers; I learned to plant twice as much as I needed and just let them have their share. Many times, in broad daylight, I saw full-grown plants twitch and then disappear, sucked underground. One night my cat caught a gopher, brought it inside, and dropped it, still very much alive, into her food bowl. It sat up in the bowl and looked at us warily. I shooed the cat into the other room and managed to trap the gopher in a jar. Then I walked it out to the end of the driveway and let it go in the grass. To my horror, the gopher turned around and ran after me, coked up on some sort of crazy Don Quixote mission. It chased me all the way into the house.

I lived there for four years and grew everything from squash and tomatoes to wheat and amaranth. The soil was so loamy and good that you could throw anything into it and it would grow. Crops came and went, but I always had two things: green beans and morning glories. At night, to give myself good dreams, I would lie in bed and think about morning glories twining up bamboo poles.

The story didn’t end well. My little house got caught in a property-line dispute between my landlord and a neighbor, and with just a few day’s notice, I had to move out. A week later, the cottage and all the outbuildings were bulldozed, and the place was eventually sold. When I visited it a couple of years later, the new owners had made it into a sort of miniature golf course, with a concrete-banked creek and little arched bridges over it. I don’t think I’ve ever been so sad in my life, so bitter. I drove away, hoping the gophers were still there and raising hell.


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