How does your garden grow? (From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA)
Sonoma Mission Gardens
After years of living with front and back yards full of cement, I yearned for roses and soil, trees and sun. Moving to Sonoma from the city scratched that itch for me. Big time. My first night of country life was spent giddily following the moon around the yard exclaiming: my redwood tree! My 28 rose bushes! My lawn! It was surreal. Such riches! Such promise! After decades of pavement and asphalt, I was-like a pet shop dog-ready to dig.
At first light that very next day I tore in, setting a blistering pace. I reallocated a meandering path of pavers, creating a makeshift patio. Gathered the roses from their far-flung corners and clustered them around the patio's perimeter. Moved a pair of young crepe myrtle trees to guard either side of the back gate. Added some plants and removed others. If the 50-foot black walnut tree had had shallower roots, I likely would have repositioned it, too.
If I was punch-drunk with the concept of a yard of my own, the yard was ambivalent about me. As summer began its surrender to fall the garden declared its true feelings, and I didn't need any help deciphering its message: I was a plant assassin and the yard had had enough. Mature camellia thriving in its location for decades? I could kill it in under a month. It seemed I'd been uncannily cursed with the ability to turn pretty green things brown. Despite the watering and weeding and backbreaking effort, countless innocents died. I needed to be stopped. So I had another baby, and the mayhem vegetalis slowed down a wee bit.
A garden is a mystery both arcane and replete. There is magic there, but plain science too. Plants have need of air, light and water. Deprive them of these and they die. But there's something ineffable contained within the garden's lush corners, some unknowable quality both sublime and divine.
The Scots call it "devas," this uncertain factor. Translated from Sanskrit, it means "Shining One." Devas were discovered some decades ago in a seaside village on Scotland's northernmost point, when a trio of seekers established a patch. Displaced first from their jobs and next from their houses, the three planted the land of necessity. Though the soil was dusty they carried on blithely, toiling together through that first hot dry summer. One of them sensed that the plants contained spirits, and swore-dirt-crusted hand to God-that she'd heard them whisper. Prune here, they would say. Mulch now, they would say. It was 1962 and, admittedly, hippie culture was fast taking hold; but these three seemed genuinely tuned into something. The instructions were followed, the devas let shine, and by September, that garden at Findhorn was producing 40-pound cabbages. Vegetables grown large beyond reckoning. The three friends were-clearly-possessors of green garden magic. Vegetation simply thrived at their hands. Word spread, and horticultural experts from all over the globe flew in to take a look. Their collective verdict was unanimous: the scene up at Findhorn was the real deal.
The real deal exists in Sonoma, as well, in the form of green-thumb experts who staff the local nurseries, although none, to our knowledge, have publicly laid claim to conversations with devas. On the east side is Wedekind's Garden Center, a sprawling lush landscape bracketed by grapevines, and on the west side of town is Sonoma Mission Gardens, a veritable green Disneyland of delights. In between, sort of, is Friedman's Home Improvement, where you can buy 2-by-12s for your raised flower beds, every imaginable garden implement, a chain saw, a wine barrel and some drip lines while you're picking out your favorite flowers. Try to stump the mavens who staff these stores and you'll have to go deep. Lydia Constantini, manager of Mission Gardens, Janet Rude, owner of Wedekind's, and Michelle Thurman, a sales tech, landscape designer and self-confessed "plant maniac" at Friedman's, are possessors of vast stores of precise knowledge. Some of it's common, like the single most predictable rookie mistake: "failure to water," they reply with benevolent smiles. Some of it less so. Plants that won't die, regardless of treatment? "Snapdragons are easy," replies Constantini. "And Love in a Mist grows nicely, too." With the explosion of eating gardens in American backyards, all the experts have witnessed a significant upswing. "It makes people happy, it feeds their soul," says Rude of the trend. "It's a nice event for the family to pursue together. It's fun to create, have the physical exercise, the spiritual enrichment, but it's also something that gives a return for your efforts: a final product you can bring to the table and eat for dinner." Constantini chimes in: "Plant the things you like to eat. And back up your heirloom tomatoes with some early producers. Plant an Early Girl, and a Sweet 100 Cherry."
Thurman roams Friedman's 12,000-square-foot garden and nursery center dispensing advice on everything from shade-tolerant choices ("Most of them are going to be green. Flowers need more sun.") to the range of North Coast native plants the store carries.
On touchy subjects like Roundup, the tree-huggers scourge, Constantini's verdict is a surprise. "I really like Roundup," she says with a defiant lift of the chin. "When it's used properly, it's a really good product. The most important thing is to use it when it's warm and when you'll have several days without rain. That keeps it from getting into the waterways."
Thurman says Friedman's is big on organics and water-wise plants and is good at diagnosing disease problems, or matching mystery plants if customers simply bring in a representative leaf. The store also offers free clinics on numerous gardening topics (see sidebar at left).
A final bit of wisdom I'm grateful to receive? "Winter squash grow during summer," reveals Constantini. "You harvest them and store them-your spaghettis and your acorns, the ones with the hard shells-then eat them in winter." Ooooh. Good to know.
I look at my garden, the beds choked with weeds. The grass is dappled with brown. Behind, in the raised beds lie the remnants of last summer: rotting tomato stalks, seedy basil, tangled beans. Even in August, my patch was a mess. I never considered-not even once- listening to the plants. Perhaps the cacophony of modern life drowned out their whispers, perhaps I've allowed my imagination to thicken and slow. But I'm relieved to consider that I may not be doomed to bungling botany, that I may not need to pledge fealty to the tribe of Black Thumbs.
Those old roses are long gone, the crepe myrtles too. The lawn's still a fright, I'll admit it. But I'm back from the nursery just now with a flat of bright blooms, I'm here in the garden, and I'm listening.
From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA