Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Ghosts of Gardens Past, Part 3:
The best of times, the worst of times (Belmont, 1997–1999)

This garden was the pinnacle, the summit of my ambitions, an entangling jungle of paradise, the feverish fruiting of my imagination.

Also the shortest-lived. Life is complicated.

After leaving the Saratoga house in 1997, I lived in Woodside for four years on a steep, rocky hill that was almost impossible to plant a garden on*. But then my boyfriend and I decided to move in together, and I gladly gave up my little hillside cabin for the more adventurous land of “living with somebody.” He and I found a small house in Belmont, a 1940s clapboard charmer that had a secret: a hidden, fully fenced side yard, about 20 x 50 feet. I wasn’t sure about the busy corner and dinky front yard and lawn we’d have to mow, but that big side yard—private, choked with weeds, long abandoned, just waiting for someone to transform it—was irresistible. As soon as we moved in, I headed out there, spading fork and pruning shears in hand.

Landscape archaeology
The “before,” looking east through the gate. Twenty years
later, just seeing this makes my back hurt.
The first thing I had to do was clear out the hip-high thicket of blackberries and weeds. From my Monte Sereno days, I knew a lot about blackberries, so I pulled on my heavy leather gloves and started hacking through the thick vines and digging out the network of roots. Day by day I cleared it, a few square feet at a time, through a bramble so dense that I didn’t actually know what was under all that vegetation. My first discovery: a full set of car tires, rusty rims and all, that emerged from the jungle like a really disappointing lost city. I stacked them by the fence, thinking I might turn them into folksy planters or something.

A few days later, my renovation project came to a halt when I dug up something I wasn’t expecting: six or eight bones, mostly large vertebrae. They were brown and old-looking, and I wondered if I’d stumbled across a burial ground or prehistoric hunting pit, something that would spark a media frenzy and draw in some university archaeological team with wheelbarrows and ropes cordoning off the site from a curious public. I went into paleontologist mode and kept digging—gently—dreading/hoping I’d find a skull in there. Another batch of bones turned up, and then I realized what I was seeing: the telltale clean saw cuts of a butcher’s shop, and the familiar shapes: ribeye, T-bone, pork chop. Ah—a dog’s stash. Mystery solved, dream deflated. I reburied them and moved on to a trove of beer cans and broken bottles that filled our recycling bin for weeks.

Still “before,” looking south.
Beware the little paper packets.
Then came the weird little paper packets. The first one turned up in a shovelful of dirt, a white object folded neatly like a miniature letter, a sort of kid’s love note you might see in a dollhouse. But it wasn’t that old; the paper was still bright white, folded into a strangely familiar origami pattern with one flap tucked in to seal it. I carefully opened it, expecting to find some written message, but the inside was blank. Then I dug up another, another, and another—dozens of them, all empty. It took me a while to remember where I’d seen the pattern before: in my own teenage years, when drug dealers sold cocaine in clever little envelopes like those. Our neighbors had said something about a dealer who’d lived in our house, and it clicked into place: These were packets for some kind of dope. All the little doll letters went in the trash, and I washed my hands.

Reuse, recycle, steal
Once the weeds and blackberries were cleared, I started sketching out the planting beds for my new garden. The yard was an odd shape, wide at one end; it would take some weirdly angled beds to maximize the planting space. With stakes and strings I marked off a narrow bed around the edges for ornamentals and, along one fence, an eight-foot-wide stand of blackberries that I chose to keep instead of eradicate. (Heck, they’d invaded the neighbors’ yards already; why not keep some for eating?) Then I divided the center part into several six-foot-wide beds, the main vegetable production area.

The “after.” Those were some rocking cucumbers
on the A-frame trellis, left center.
To make the most out of the double-dug** raised beds I planned, I wanted to shore up the edges with wood borders to conserve soil and water and make it all look more elegant. But we weren’t rich, and it was going to take a lot of wood to make those borders. My boyfriend and I were mulling this over one morning while we were out for a walk through a new subdivision by the bay. The houses were still under construction, and amid the chunks of concrete and blank yards, something caught our eye: a giant wooden crate with “debris” spray-painted on it, full of damaged pine lumber. It was crammed with 2x8s, 2x6s, and 2x4s, all odd lengths but some as long as six feet, dinged up and spiky with bent nails. All of it was clearly about to be hauled off and dumped, so we hastily got our car, backed it up to the debris bin, and loaded in as much as we could fit into the hatchback. We took it home and went back for a second load, ending up with a carport full of lumber that kept me busy for weeks while I sawed and hammered it into beautifully solid, custom-made borders. Having all that wood was pure luxury, and I had a great time working the puzzle of which pieces should go where.

Beans and corn and plastic flamingos, oh my.
Slowly, bed by bed, I built the borders and dug the soil, amending it with compost. Everything I planted came up like gangbusters in that dirt that had been lying fallow for so many years. By mid-summer, it was hard to believe that yard had been a weedy mess just a few months earlier; now it was a dream garden, a forest of inviting green and blossoms and bees, stocked to the gills with corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, onions, garlic, asparagus, radishes, and herbs. I even had enough room for two huge bean towers—now I was really living the dream, since green beans were my favorite food—and planted Blue Lakes, Kentucky Wonders, romanos, yellow and purple ones, and cranberry shelling beans, all of which produced in amazing quantities. It was a culmination of all my years of gardening experience, coupled with some seriously hard labor that my young body had no trouble doing. I didn’t realize it, but I’d reached a gardening apex—but I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it for long.

Lightning, twice
One night in July, it all came crashing down when I was playing racquetball and felt a weirdly familiar pain in my midsection, a deep ache severe enough that I couldn’t quite stand up straight. After a couple of anxious days, I saw a doctor and confirmed what I’d feared: I had hepatitis. In fact, I had it again; the reason the pain had felt familiar was because I’d also had hepatitis 15 years earlier, with that same strange ache. This time, said the specialist, it was a different strain than the earlier one, transmitted an entirely different way, and the two were not related “Basically,” he said, “you got hit by lightning twice.”

Not a diet I recommend.
And unlike the mild case of hepatitis 15 years earlier, this time it knocked me flat. I lost my appetite and a lot of weight, felt nauseated all the time, got so jaundiced that I avoided looking in mirrors, and got so weak that I couldn’t stand up long enough to fry an egg. Like, literally—I had to drag a chair into the kitchen while my measly egg cooked, giving me ample time to sit there and think about how my life had officially gone to hell. Every week I had to see the doctor and get another blood test; I got so used to the needles that I could watch them slide into my arm without even a flinch. Most days I spent in bed; there was no way I could go for a walk or endure a long drive or stand in line at the grocery store. For about three months, through the heart of the summer and into fall, my boyfriend had to do everything for me—cook, clean, shop, run errands. The company I worked for (bless them) sent a computer for me to use at home so I could work at my own pace and lie down when I had to. I couldn’t go out, couldn’t see anyone, and could barely eat. Food didn’t even taste good; my abdomen was so swollen that eating felt like trying to force a baseball through a cocktail straw.

About all the activity I could manage was a slow walk out the garden every couple of days to look at all that beauty that was still growing and flowering and producing crazily all by itself. Slowly, carefully, I’d pick beans and cucumbers and squash—which were coming on by the loads, the baskets, the pounds—and drop them in a colander. My boyfriend would cook them up for dinner. My indelible memory of that summer was sitting with him at the dinner table, both of our plates piled about four inches high with way too many green beans. If I hadn’t been so sick, it would have been heaven. As it was, it seemed like a cruel joke.

Gardening, the art of impermanence
Eventually I started to feel better, and working in the garden was one of the benchmarks that charted my recovery (yesterday I could endure 10 minutes of weeding; today I made it to 12). Walks on Bair Island on San Francisco Bay also helped (last week I made it to the first curve of the levee; this week I got 20 yards past it). In the autumn garden I planted lettuce, set row covers over the broccoli, and settled in for the winter. By spring I was completely recovered; there was no trace of the virus in my blood tests, and my human-pincushion days were over. But by then, the relationship with my boyfriend had also taken a turn, and we decided to part ways. In a tight housing market, it took me almost a year—another full gardening cycle—to find a new place to live. In all those limbo months before I moved, I was constantly torn between whether to plant or not, since I didn’t know when I’d have to leave. So I planted quick-growing crops: spinach, greens, scallions. The longer-term commitments, the winter squashes and artichokes of the world, would have to wait for another garden, another chapter.

See? The wood borders were worth
the work and thieving.
When I finally moved out the following summer, there must have been a time when I closed the gate on that secret garden, when I saw the pine-bordered beds and strong, trellised blackberries for the last time. It must have been one of those bewildering farewells, the feeling of all that work and love going to waste. But honestly, I don’t remember that. What I remember is my racquetball friends coming over to help me move furniture, and one of them following in her car behind the U-Haul truck that I drove to the new house. I remember sitting in that truck at a stoplight when a teenage guy in a sportscar took a turn too fast and skidded past me and my friend’s car and crashed into the car behind her, nailing it in the driver’s side door. I jumped out of the truck and ran back there in a panic, and was immensely relieved to see everyone—my friend, the driver in the other car, the horrified kid—all getting out of their cars, all fine. Scared witless, but fine. We all took a breath and then laughed about it, exchanging phone numbers and insurance cards. And I headed to my new home, my new garden. Which was a different garden, not the same, but scaled down a bit—there wasn’t as much room, and somewhere in the mix was my own faith, broken in a few places. And there I was, in a life alone that was not the same either. Just new.

To see Ghosts of Gardens Past, Part 1 (Monte Sereno, with “coyotes in the woods, lizards in the bougainvillea, and snakes in the grass”), click here.

For Part 2 (Saratoga, a garden that had “the unimaginative grid of a grocery store” but charms nonetheless), go here.

* I did attempt a vegetable garden one year on that steep hill in Woodside, naively figuring I’d just hear the deer and would chase them away. But the deer never got a chance. One morning I went out on the deck, coffee cup in hand, to have a satisfying look at my squash and tomato plants, which were several weeks old and getting tall and robust. I stood there looking at the garden, and for a few moments I couldn’t quite register what I was seeing—a lot of brown where there should have been green. I finally realized that overnight, a huge oak limb had fallen out of a tree overhead—maybe 30 feet up—and had crashed on the vegetable bed, flattening everything. The branch managed to hit every single plant, as if a mean-tempered god had seen my giddy little garden and thrown a thunderbolt just the right size to crush it and nothing else. All wrecked. I never had the heart to try planting anything there again.

** Double digging has fallen out of favor, but it was all the rage back then. I had a great system with a wheelbarrow and a big soil screen like archaeologists use. Double digging sort of maximizes the work per square foot, which at the time seemed like a virtue to me.

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