North Coast Journal


Flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la!

by Maka McKenna

Gardens, like sausages, are easier to enjoy if you don't know what went into them. This time of year, when green spouts pop cavalierly up through the layer of dead weeds from last summer, it's easy to get the gardening bug. We want to recreate for ourselves the formal hedgerows of Andrew Marvell, the massed colors of a Monet.

But poems and paintings depicting the idealized garden never show you the lowdown dirty work it takes to maintain one.

Having servants or slaves is one solution. Cutting corners is another. After a while you get to know which plants take lots of work and which give you a free ride.

In my own garden, I avoid bulbs that have to be dug up and stored. If I'm going to spend my energy planting something in the ground, it's going to stay there.

The same goes for annuals vs. perennials. If I'm going to the trouble of buying a plant and bringing it home, it jolly well better live forever or at least till I'm too old to care.

My early attempts at gardening were fostered in the bosom of my family. When I was about 5, some of my relatives went through a gentleman-farmer phase and moved to a walnut ranch outside Vacaville.

Inevitably, they hosted a barbecue so the rest of the family could inspect their new lifestyle. It was hotter than hell, and the water was so hard you couldn't drink it, but I had never before seen green walnuts and those rows of trees fired my ambition.

"I want to plant something," I told one of my uncles, who was fanning himself in the shade.

"Plant an olive tree," said my uncle. "Olives are good."

The olives were on the picnic table so I ate a few and contemplated the pits. "Plant them by twos," said my uncle. "That way they keep each other company."

I dutifully planted my olive pits in pairs, not realizing they'd long had the life processed out of them. Of course, they didn't sprout and the gigantic olive tree I had envisioned, spreading Biblically above the propane tank, was not to be.

This set a pattern of lifelong gardening heartbreak. My vegetable garden last year yielded five pea pods and two raspberries. Things were going so well I decided to plant some pumpkin seed I got for 10 cents on sale. Hindsight says it must have been on sale because any fool but me knew it was too late to plant pumpkins. Long vines sprouted but nothing pumpkinlike seemed to be growing on them. We celebrated Halloween with store-bought pumpkins.

During the winter I can avoid going into the yard for weeks at a time. For some reason I was out there right after Christmas and to my surprise I stumbled upon one, small, very misshapen pumpkin. It's sitting on my kitchen table now. Maybe I'll decorate it for Easter.

Last year was also the year I spent too much time reading house-and-garden type magazines and launched a huge project to grow containers full of flowers for the patio -- from seed. I spray-painted baskets, I lugged potting soil from across town, I seeded, I watered, I transplanted.

For a few glorious weeks I had a patio out of Sunset. Would I do it again? No, no need. There are some things you do only once, just to show you can do it. Like baking French bread or making ravioli from scratch.

My lawn work is delegated to a cheerful yardman who often shows up with an apprentice. One such newbie used his Weedeater to trim around a row of three rhododendrons. Somehow he sheared the middle rhody down to the ground.

I had planted them to brighten up the front entrance, so they were in a truly conspicuous place. "Never fear," or words to that effect, said the gallant yardman. "I'll replace it for you. We'll get one just like it."

We'd have to, I told him, since these were a specific shade of purple. "I'll have to check," I said, "whether it was a Fastuosum Plenum or a Ramapo."

He looked at me blankly and said, "I thought it was a rhododendron."

I settled for a free mow.


Maka MacKenna is a Eureka free-lance writer.

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