Monday, September 21, 2015

Ghosts of Gardens Past, Part 2:
"Breaking Rocks in the Hot Sun" (Saratoga, 1990–1994)

This was a Willy Wonka garden: It grew out of pure imagination. It had to, because at the start it was a big piece of nothing.
        It was early summer 1990, and I’d been house-hunting for weeks. Still smarting from the demolition of my sweet little cottage in Monte Sereno (see Ghosts of Gardens Past, Part 1), I’d been sharing an apartment with a roommate for a year and a half and it wasn’t going well. No one—not even our cats—was happy. I’d been itching to live by myself again, and I couldn’t wait to get back to gardening.
        One day I came across a little in-law cottage for rent that was still under construction. It had a funky triangular living room and wiring that wasn’t quite finished, so only half of the kitchen appliances worked. But the yard was interesting—a wide stretch of bare ground between the cottage and the main house. I asked the landlady what was going on with that big yard. “Oh,” she said, “we’ll put up a fence and divide it. You can have as much as you want.” I hastily signed a deposit check.

Pole beans in the ground—check.
Hurry-up summer
I moved in during a drought-baked June, and the bare ground in that yard was hard as an old bone. But I managed to dig out a bed and get pole beans in the ground by the 4th of July, and I kept going from there—marking off each bed with string and stakes, digging and planting one at a time. It was great having all that space, but it made for damned hard work—countless sweaty weekends wielding a pickaxe and shovel* in the hot sun, humming “I Fought the Law” (Clash version). I quickly got used to the labor (hey, I was 28) and spent a lot of happy days out there stubbled with dirt, prying rocks out of the ground and bending chicken wire into Quonset huts for the cucumbers to climb on. I draped floating row covers over the broccoli to keep out the aphids; I set up walls of tinfoil around the lettuce to keep the slugs off. The next spring, I planted peas early and got a bumper crop—way too many for weeks and weeks, a bounty I’ve never been able to repeat.

        The sheer size of the garden was wonderfully freeing—I could plant pretty much anything I wanted, including perennial space-hogs like artichokes and asparagus. But by the second year, I saw that all that feverish work had an unexpected drawback: In my drive to get all the beds planted, I hadn’t given much thought to the garden’s design. And now that it was all dug out, I realized that it had the unimaginative grid of a grocery store: one wide aisle down the middle, with perpendicular paths branching off from it. I tried to class it up with a Tuscan terra cotta birdbath in the middle, but that thing turned out to be impossible to keep clean and its conical base made a nice apartment building for black widows.

A more successful addition to the garden’s ambience was a tool shed, one of those metal kits from the hardware store. After I managed to get the enormous carton home in the back of my car, I was alarmed to see that the first step in the directions was “Build a foundation.” I had to think on that for a while, and ended up cobbling one together with bricks and scrap lumber. It never felt substantial enough to keep the little building from flying away in a windstorm, but luckily we had no hurricanes and it stayed on the ground. I loved that little shed. I felt a flush of pride every time I opened the door and saw my tools hanging neatly, the odd bags of potting soil and sand obediently waiting on the shelves. I can still hear the metal pop of the walls when I stepped onto that homemade plywood floor.

            As the beds filled in with plants, the yard’s severe face began to soften. An impromptu herb bed near the front door was one of the prettiest spots, with lacy blue and purple fronds waving drowsily along the brick walkway. Over time, a mix of vegetables, annuals, and perennials grew into their adult bodies and shaped a graceful, surprising landscape.

Living, in and out
In the four years I lived there, life marched on. A freak February cold spell froze the water pipes and forced me to leave the house and move in with a friend for a week. A relationship came and went; Bill Clinton became the only presidential candidate I’d ever voted for who’d actually won. My delicate, middle-aged cat Tara, never much of a wanderer, ran the house. The undisputed ruler of the yard was my much older, much tougher cat Salome, a fierce beauty who’d never lost her feral streak. During our third year living there, Salome began to struggle; arthritis made every step painful, and mysterious seizures left her disoriented and helpless. After a long battle, it was clearly time to put her down. Afterward, I had no doubt where she should be, so I dug a small, deep grave near the back fence, planted rosemary** over her, and set off her little memorial with white rocks. I spent a lot of time out there sitting next to her, weeding and thinking about her warm gray fur and uncompromising, hunting nature.

        And then, suddenly, I had to move. The company I worked for had decided to relocate their offices 30 miles north, making for an ugly commute, and noisy neighbors had taken the shine off my idyllic little house. I was also tired of the South Bay, with its traffic and hot summers. I was ready for some fog, some hills, some San Francisco. So I went house-hunting again and found a sweet little cabin in Woodside, a half-hour north, and started packing.

On the last day in the Saratoga house, I was cleaning the place out and checking every corner and cupboard, well past the point where I felt like I’d puke if I found one more stray umbrella or pillowcase or stack of papers that had to be dealt with. Loading the last armload of stuff into the car, I thought, Hooray—on to the new house. I went back to lock the door, turned around…and saw the garden, laid out in front of me like a small country of roses and herbs, the shed standing stoic and empty, all of it sort of looking at me, holding its breath. My garden! I hadn’t really thought about leaving it. It was a hot summer day, like the first time I’d seen the place, but now it was all filled in and full of personality, scent, and motion.

        I walked around the yard for a long time, touching the plants. We’d finally had a decent, rainy winter, and the artichokes were fat and happy, the dianthus blazing in pink and white, the climbing rose thriving at last. It was a good garden; I felt good about it. But the satisfaction was tinged with loss and worry about what the next tenants might do to it.

        Then I saw the little grave, and a bitter grief pulled at my throat. The yard had quietly become a sort of ancestral land, now that I’d buried someone I loved in it. How can you ever leave that? I sat with Salome one last time, brushing the fronds of rosemary and straightening the white rocks. I hoped against hope that whoever moved in here next would water and tend and hold the place kindly. It was terrible, that feeling, that leaving it up to whatever would come next. I’d felt it before, and here it was again. I suddenly cursed my luck to be a gardener, with our blind hopes and often-broken dreams.***

* One time I shoveled for so long that I threw my back out and couldn’t straighten up until the next day.

** According to folklore, if you tap a branch of rosemary on a lover’s hand, he or she will never forget you.

*** That day made me think a lot about the strange business of renting, gardening, and having to leave gardens behind over and over. Already I’d done it twice—the first time in Monte Sereno, the second in Saratoga. All that work and planning, all the seed catalogs and late-night winter visions, dashed and lost and mourned. After I got settled into the new house, I dumped some of those thoughts into a journal entry and eventually turned it into an essay called “A Trail of Rosemary,” which Fine Gardening magazine picked up a couple of years later. It was one of the first pieces of writing I ever had published, and the editor nominated it for a Gardens Writers Association award. That small success put gas in my writer’s tank for years.

The neighbor's cat. I called him Pumpkin,
but he was partial to corn.

Tara and Salome. Another hot day.