Thursday, July 25, 2019

Might I have a bit of earth?

The Secret Garden has been one of my favorite books ever since my mom first read it to me when I was four years old.  The book is filled with vivid descriptions of the wonders of growing things and the miracle of springtime.  I would love to have a set of beautiful English walled gardens I could watch through the seasons.  Unfortunately, SoCal is not England.  Our seasons range from warm to hot, it never rains, and we don't really have a dramatic springtime.  If you were to lock up a garden and leave it alone for ten years, it wouldn't turn into a wild paradise. It would just die.  The central metaphors of The Secret Garden would have utterly failed if the garden had been here in SoCal.  Mary, Colin, and Mr. Craven would have all gotten even more miserable and then died, and Dickon would have gone off into the chaparral and started a forest fire.

When I bought my house nearly 6 years ago, I imagined turning my backyard into a wonderland of drought-tolerant shrubbery, and I imagined by the nicely xeriscaped front yard would just sit there and look nice and not get overtaken by weeds.  Neither of these things have come to pass.  I learned very quickly that I actually have no interest in gardening, and I don't really like spending time outside here because it's always hot and dry and excessively sunny.

Plus, there's a huge learning curve for an Easterner like me.  I just didn't even know where to start.  The couple of times I've gone to plant nurseries, I've been overwhelmed by choices and lack of information, and when you ask the staff what to do, they give you 500 options and don't seem to really know what they're talking about.  I just wanted someone to point and like three different things and say "plant this".

Also, most of the stuff I see in nurseries seems geared toward people who have irrigation systems of some sort in place, either traditional sprinklers for grass or drip irrigation for more drought tolerant stuff.  I don't want to garden like that.  I want to get it established and then leave it alone.  When I say this to the nursery staff, they look at me like I'm an idiot.  Maybe I am.  But, I do see trees and shrubs around in locations where they're clearly not being watered, so I don't know why then nurseries aren't just selling that stuff.  Or maybe it's in there, but I don't know how to find it, and the staff doesn't know how to guide me to it.  Maybe in the future, I should just go for a drive or a hike and take pictures of all the stuff I see growing with no water and then try to figure out what it is and plant that stuff.

Anyway, thinking somewhat along those lines, six years is enough time to observe the growth patterns of what's already in the yard and to determine what will thrive and what will die.  In the xeriscaped front yard, patchy grass and other weeds grew back up through the weed cloth and decomposed granite.  Most of the shrubs died or just failed to thrive.  The exception is the magnificent Russian sage plant that flowers gloriously for about six months until the lesser goldfinches eat up the remnants in the fall, and then it goes dormant in the winter.  I never prune or water it, and it's unquestionably ecstatically happy.
Thriving Russian sage, July 2019

The deodar cedar tree, which was a scrawny little thing six years ago, has grown triumphantly, also with no water.  Looking at it now, it's hard to believe I managed to use it as a Christmas tree just a few years ago.

Deodar cedar, Dec 2013
Deodar cedar, July 2019

In the backyard, getting rid of the tree of heaven was a choice I have never regretted even slightly.  The palo verde has thrived with no water, though I wish the previous owner had planted a large shade tree in that location instead.

Palo verde, Oct 2013

Palo verde, July 2019

There's a large deciduous shade tree in the far back, and although someone told me it was a Chinese elm, I haven't been able to confirm that identification.  It looks more like a weeping cherry tree, but it doesn't make any flowers.  The guy at the nursery I asked couldn't figure it out.  It makes copious leaves and branches that grow chaotically, and it needs a yearly haircut to keep it above head level.

So, anyway, I want more shade trees, and I want more shrubs that will cover up the ground and reduce the amount of scraggly grass and weeds that have to be trimmed.  Guess I'm finally going to give this gardening thing a bit of a go, hoping that with a year or two of care, I can get some new stuff established and then leave it alone.

Since the Russian sage is an obvious winner, the plan is to put them everywhere.  I'm also experimenting with a tam juniper in the front yard.  A tam juniper grows low to the ground and wide, so you can use it as a ground cover, and it's pretty!  If I can successfully not kill this, then I'll put it all over the place.  After planting four shrubs from 5-gallon pots, I must say, planting is an absolutely miserable activity.  Definitely paying the nursery or my yard crew to do it next time.  Hats off to those of you who actually like gardening.

New Russian sage (foreground) and tam juniper (right)

I want to plant some more trees in the backyard, but I need to do more research first to make sure I have the right kind of space for them when they mature. They have to not drop detritus everywhere, grow over roofs, or destroy the foundations of my garage.

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