If a grown child actually asks for advice, does what you suggest, and then inquires about the next step – you would try hard to answer, yes? But arriving at our younger son’s Los Angeles house to find the well-shaped, lawn-smothering beds he and his sweet friend constructed this spring, I realized how far I was from my Pacific Northwest garden!
The new gardener asked questions and I tried to guess at planting possibilities and watering intervals in a dry and hot climate – frustrating answers including “it depends,” “maybe” – inevitable equivocations. Wilted or yellowed leaves mean “too much water or not enough?” – the painful response: “could be either.”
All gardening and garden advice must be local, but I tried to hint at the universal garden truths: Make good dirt. Plant the right healthy plant in the right place. Group plants with similar needs together. Deadhead. Water less frequently but thoroughly. Enjoy the “borrowed view” (in this case huge trees belonging to the neighbor). And for encouragement always remember: “Plants want to grow.”
When you really look, Los Angeles is a wonderland of plants – especially after a rainy spring left the hills green and water flowing in the L.A. “river.” The sprawl seems all cars and nothing but cars (and it is on a sunny Friday afternoon between L.A. and San Diego), but fine trees – trademark mop-headed palms, sculptural pines, and elegant oaks – line boulevards. Vines cover embankments, and drifts of sturdy daisy faces and nodding poppies soften freeway edges.
The new gardener itched to get going and plant something or at least to outline a plan, so in addition to a plant-scouting visit to the Huntington Gardens, we observed a lot of “gas station plants” – small fan-shaped palms and succulents – tough, capable of surviving neglect and drought, but beautiful. Also mature and established and expensive. (We visited a venerable old nursery in a giant shade house which felt like Mrs. Havisham’s conservatory and a world away from box stores. A knowledgeable staff tends a jungly assortment of trees and shrubs whose branches often arched over our heads.)
We bought three tomato plants, three each rosemary and lavender, and a few annuals – including two six-packs of nasturtium to cover completely one of the new beds – I hope. In spite of a couple of cloudy days on this trip, people mostly acknowledge that rain is over for the spring. (That is a concept beyond foreign to me.)
But it’s irresistible to try and nurture new gardener excitement. Back at the house we made pockets in the permaculture beds and filled them with potting soil for the little plants. I could see the pleasure the young people found in figuring out a brick patio, building beds, and these few plantings.
The next morning, the new plants looked perky in the early slanting sun, their leaves adot with dew. I found a filigreed leaf on a tomato plant – and a slug the size of a quinoa grain.
But we won’t talk about slugs and bugs for now – saving those universal truths for another day.