I Quit Tomatoes

As a youngest child, I do not believe that I should be expected to share. People are supposed to share with me. And though I have worked very hard over the past several decades to get over my aversion for the practice, sharing the food on my plate is still difficult for me. That’s why I always cook pasta by the pound even though there are only the two of us. For me, sharing requires a sense of plenty.

I knew from the first time I ever picked up a trowel that I was not the type of person to be able to grow food, I just knew it. For one thing, you end up expecting stuff: I plant you, I water you, I give you sun; and you give me something yummy to eat in return. I could never really trust an inanimate object to live up to a bargain like that. If a flowering plant fails to bring something forth, that’s different: I may be disappointed, but I won’t be hungry.

It’s never a good thing for me to be hungry.

But it gets worse: if you grow food-type stuff, you are going to be competing with critters for your own dinner. Lots of critters, some of them really disgusting. They will come along and chew up leaves and stems, insinuate themselves into new fruits, run off with nearly ripe things you’ve awaited for months, show up in your sink when you rinse off whatever you were planning to eat – no, it’s all too yucky for me. I’m a city girl. Even Central Market and Whole Foods sell perfectly delicious local tomatoes, not a disgusting creature in sight.

It’s not that I don’t admire people who can grow food, I do. What they accomplish seems truly miraculous to me. In fact, I enjoy going to the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning (and I have three excellent ones from which to choose, all within five miles of my house). Wouldn’t it be ungrateful not to support local organic farmers in their attempts to earn a living in the forbidding conditions of central Texas?

This year, I gave up on tomatoes. When Floyd wanted to put some in last year, I set aside my generally pessimistic position and set up a “square-foot garden” in the back yard. Floyd made an elaborate cage against mammal invasion, and being repeatedly scratched with half-inch chicken wire seemed a small price to pay. Despite my doubts, we produced a great number of delicious tomatoes which we enjoyed in many caprese salads and frozen quarts of marinara sauce that pleased us all winter.

So in March of this year, I went ahead and put in some tomato plants. I chose Romas and some sort of cherry tomatoes and a couple of other varieties. I went through my usual ongoing internal battle: too much water? No flavor. Too little water? Straw. I did my best, honest. Besides, we had such a pleasant spring that I hardly did any watering at all. The kale and chard plants we put in to enhance our morning juices did very well.

But aside from the cherries, not one tomato was fit to eat: for reasons I don’t even wish to comprehend, our lovely-looking tomatoes tasted like wet foam.  Perhaps that’s related to the blossom-end rot they then developed. Like I said, I don’t even want to know, because I am not going to do anything to correct whatever I did wrong.

Because I quit.

Life is too short to risk that level of disappointment on things you can obtain so easily elsewhere. Pulled the damn plants out of the ground and mashed them into leaf bags to go haunt the landfill or the compost machine or wherever Austin greenery is taken to break down.

Drove to the Natural Gardener, bought a few bags of new soil for the square-foot garden, and planted basil and Spanish lavender.

I feel so much better that I wouldn’t have any problem sharing a plate of Marcella Hazan’s unspeakably wonderful pesto with pasta, potatoes, and green beans.

A Landscape Is Born. And Later Adopted.

Dear Woman Who Built Our House:

Well, I fully realize that you didn’t literally build it. But you did leave a notebook, which I found in the front room closet, left there by the people who bought the house from you. And let me say that your attention to detail is, um, a marvel. I’ve never ordered a house before, but I’m fairly sure I am incapable of such detailed notes covering every door, light switch, kick plate, and landscape plant. On the one hand, I appreciate your pursuit of the builder whose painters left spatters of paint on the back window and whose “cleanup” left smears of paint and whose second cleanup left smears of cleanup solution.

On the other hand, I think I also understand why so many of your notes read, “Called contractor again, no answer.” “Called contractor, not in.” “Called contractor, has not called me back.” “Called contractor, spoke to secretary…”

Sometimes I feel I can reach all the way back to 1997 and see you, still in your apartment as this house was being built, carefully selecting all the best landscape plants Home Depot had to offer, meticulously recording each plant, how much it cost, and where it went in the yard. Thinking ahead to where shade would be welcome, envisioning an oasis of flowering plants and trees. The notebook in the closet bulges with receipts, plant tags, directions for planting and watering, and transcripts of your phone conversations with the yard people.

For instance, I know for a fact that you ordered three hundred Asian jasmine plants to be put in under the magnificent live oak you named (?) Virgil. And I could tell you a thing or two about how many pain pills were involved in the removal of said plants (a foot deep and virtually impenetrable by the time I arrived) by me personally over the course of two years. But let’s let bygones be bygones, shall we?

I discovered a number of things while sawing and forking and hacking my way through all that jasmine. I’m assuming the little garden statues and stained-glass hummingbirds were artifacts of the woman who bought the house from you. But I’m fairly sure you were responsible – yes, here’s the receipt! – for the little pink azalea that still sits at Virgil’s patient feet. It’s a wonder every spring! And while I’m a little embarrassed it’s there, still, it blooms. I simply make it a point to state to every passer-by that the azalea came with the house, and evidently Virgil manufactures enough acid to assure its survival.

Did you grow up in Dallas, by any chance? Or Houston? Or east Texas? Or any of the trillion other places where the soil in no way resembles the alkaline substance into which we thrust plants here in Austin? Because little plastic plant markers I have found in the yard, and receipts in your scrupulous notebook, suggest to me that this little pink azalea wasn’t the only foreign plant you foisted onto this landscape.

Even the crape myrtles (so many of them on such a small lot!).  I have wanted some since I first knew what they were. That they were called “the lilac of the south” struck me as hopelessly romantic. Perhaps they stirred the New England part of my garden psyche. I was willing to overlook the fact that they aren’t natives here; I was willing to compromise my gardening beliefs and tell myself “sort of well adapted” was good enough. You rescued me: I didn’t have to plant a single one. And, if I don’t clip back the runners every eight hours or so, before long I could be living in a crape myrtle field, aphid urine sprinkling down on me all day long in that charming way aphid urine has.

You chose a number of trees that always seem to be doing something messy. But the dark pink blossoms look lovely in Travis’s dark silky coat. He looks like a car in a Calcutta wedding ceremony.

My arborist would be much happier with me if I would pull out all the nandina, but he knows I won’t do it. First of all, I love their tropical shadows and their color changes and all those dark red berries adding color to an otherwise dank landscape throughout the winter. And if I am going to be completely honest here, sometimes “May Be Invasive” is exactly what I am looking for in a landscape plant. I know that’s bad, but if I didn’t have flaws I would be completely insufferable, let’s face it.

What we have pulled out – and the welding truck has proved a real trouper with this – are all those strange round shrubs you planted as … as… Well, now I’m stuck. They weren’t really hedges; they existed here and there to encircle certain areas of the yard, like leafy miniature Stonehenge monoliths. In the back, they made a ring around a crape myrtle. They never did anything particularly interesting or pretty, and my skills as a pruner are really not to be spoken of. But the little round bushes were a hard to comprehend, and so they are gone. In the back yard, the wild lantana of my California heart now asserts itself under the biggest crape myrtle, and the bees and butterflies are happy about that.

I shouldn’t be so harsh (something that could be said about me pretty much any day of the week). You made some excellent choices. Some of the shrubs and trees you ordered have grown up enough to screen us from the neighbors, and even to block out some of the radiance of the 1,000,000 watt streetlight outside our bedroom.  The Nellie Stevens holly outside the kitchen window not only makes a beautiful dark green curtain against the western sun, it feeds thousands of bees in the spring and houses families of small birds, making chores at the kitchen sink a whole lot less odious. I thank you for those every day.

Remember the yaupon at the end of the driveway, the one you complained to the yard care people was “whimpy?” It has become anything but. Mockingbirds had a nest there when I first moved in, and I hope they will again. I like to think you’d be happy to see how lush it’s grown, and the Texas sage beneath it, and the Texas Beautyberry between the corner of our lot and the yard next door.

Even though I can imagine your young 1997 self, thrilled to be planning your first house and landscape, trying so hard to get all of it right, I have a hard time picturing you now. Do you have another house, another yard? Or does the fact that you only lived here two years suggest that harder times befell you and your little family?

Once in a while when I’m working in the yard, I imagine you driving by , on a little nostalgia trip such as I’m prone to take past houses where I’ve lived at different stages of my life. I envision you pointing to the trees and shrubs you chose, amazed to see them all so huge, remembering aspects of your life back then – who you were, changes you couldn’t have foreseen, things you might do differently if the impossible were made possible and we actually could go back.

I like to think you would be happy to see what’s become of what you started.

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Unruly, Really

The Impudent Gardener

 

I’ve been gardening for 20 years in Texas and had to learn the hard way what works here and what won’t, no matter how much I love a given plant. My father always had an array of small gardens in our Connecticut yard, growing mostly irises and the gladioli my mother loved. The year the woodchucks ate his green tomatoes was the last straw for my unforgiving parental unit; he didn’t do any gardening after that until he took over the flowerbeds at their retirement apartment in San Diego. By then he was a little more sanguine about destructive forces, and could chalk up the theft of roses to homeless people who possessed so little it was hard for them to respect the possessions of others.

 

Just over a hundred miles north, outside Los Angeles proper, my best friend was quietly teaching me the ways of the urban garden. I doubt Mary would say she taught me to be a gardener; I think she would say we learned about gardening together.

 

When I first met Mary she had just moved into the house where she’d grown up, a little four-room bungalow with a sun porch and a tiny back yard that was possessed by an enormous pepper tree. Impossibly, her parents had just died within seven weeks of one another, and there she was, in a living room with gold wall-to-wall and an overwhelming array of furniture (including the huge glass-doored shelf cabinet thing always referred to as “the piece of furniture”).

 

I cannot tell you how it was that I immediately felt related to this woman who had been my then-boyfriend’s lover for six years a decade prior. All I know is that I believed from the start that her house was my home, her yard my yard. And this has not changed one bit since 1983.

 

This was my first California landscape, and I loved every single aspect of it – even the gigantic Bird of Paradise that possessed one corner of the house and seemed bent on taking over the living room. I thought it was wonderful that plants could come right into your house! Perhaps a big part of the impudent gardener was born there, where I marveled at lantana planted by passing birds; lacy tangles of scented geraniums that smelled somehow exotic and familiar when you crushed their leaves between your fingers; and the unbelievable scent of night-blooming jasmine. Looking back, I should have said So long!  to Mark and moved in with Mary right then and there, a failure that grieves us to this day.

 

But I married Mark, and soon enough moved from Connecticut to Austin, which was as close to his teaching job in San Antonio as I planned to live. He commuted twice a week, 30 weeks a year; I took up grad school at UT. Life took a few interesting twists and turns, and we ended up buying a house in what is now a fabulously popular neighborhood in 1992.

 

That first Austin yard sat under a canopy of old pecan trees, and though I tried to re-create the California garden of my dreams, it wasn’t long before I figured out that hibiscus needed more water than I had to give it, and my beloved Lantana wouldn’t really be happy just partial sunlight. That 1st year, my father visited from California, and we laughed as we tried to plant roses in 2 inches of topsoil and 6 miles of caliche. Nor could I convince night blooming jasmine to survive an Austin winter.

 

I was talking recently with the new gardener who complained that she is too much of a perfectionist to endure the impossibility of weeding. Expecting to walk out of the morning, put in a meditative hour in the early sunlight, and return to the house for coffee leaving weed-free flowerbeds in her wake, she ended up sorely disappointed. “There’s no place for perfectionism in a garden,” I told her. “That is why I plant natives.”

 

Perhaps it is this combination of the dream garden and the reality of Austin’s climate that has led me to the gardens I keep now. Visiting my brother in Connecticut, I leaf through my sister-in-law’s garden catalogs and lose myself in daydream about dark green landscapes blanketed with flowers in every shade of white: hydrangea, antique roses, paper white narcissus, Lily of the Valley. Like any worthy English major, I am daydreaming Austen, with its cool climate and woolly lambs frolicking alongside an ancient stone fence. On such visits I must always hold myself in check, lest I arrived home with a suitcase full of asparagus root stock and big wooly sweaters–that last a retail temptation I can barely resist.

 

Knowing how hard it is to give up the dream of a European formal garden should give me more patience with my neighbors who remain apparently oblivious to the fact that they live in a harsh desert climate, choosing alien shrubs they have their yard people shape into Tootsie-Pops, giant paper cups, and something that resembles a close-up side view of corrugated cardboard. Sadly, however, nothing gives me patience. Why would anyone want a high-maintenance yard full of sculpted aliens when you can have the riotously unruly natural look of native plants? You don’t even need to worry about trimming them perfectly, which is important for dangerous pruners like myself. I generally go at trimming the way hairdressers go at bangs: “chipping” in to keep the profile from looking like your hair’s been trimmed around the rim of an upturned soup bowl. I like the lacy profile that results.

 

I guess not everybody likes the interesting textures of rough edges.

 

Fortunately, it is not difficult to favor the central Texas landscape for exactly what it is. I first saw the mad profusion of Texas wildflowers in the spring of 1980, visiting the about to be-husband who brought me here. Along every roadside bluebonnets, pink Mexican petunias, fierce orange Indian paint brushes, the daisy shaped Indian blanket, yellow and white flowers of every size and description whose names I still don’t know: this was spring in Texas.

 

Over time, thanks in no small part to Lady Bird Johnson’s memorable legacy and to the work of our own natural Gardener John Dromgoole (whose radio program was a passionate campaign to convince listeners that nature is the most brilliant gardener of all, if only we will stop bombarding it with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and the imposition of plants that do not belong here), I learned to appreciate the splendor of Texas natives and well adapted plants. Just as my Connecticut sensibility could not comprehend vividly colored houses until I came to live in a place where the white heat of summer renders everything faded, I had to develop a Texas sensibility for gardening. And while some people evidently still consider the thought of native plants terribly constricting, I find the opposite to be true.

 

My newest gardens surround a house on a corner lot in a fairly new subdivision. While such a place was the furthest thing from my dreams, when we last moved it was my current (forever, please) husband’s turned to choose. An intrepid mountain biker, on familiar terms with the most challenging aspects of the Barton Creek Greenbelt, he chose a house 2 blocks from the Greenbelt. The story of the man who was almost killed by a rattlesnake 2 blocks from this house remains for another time. (This morning the greenbelt was being circled by a helicopter and surrounded by police cars awaiting the escape of a person possibly associated with the dead body discovered just before dawn near the neighborhood offices. Look, everybody, just go someplace else for once, ok? I hear Kentucky is nice.)

 

I had never wanted a late-1990’s white brick house with a garage façade, and I still have a very hard time imagining that I actually live here. But what this home did offer, from my point of view, was a 100-foot stretch of dead grass and strangulating weeds along a west-facing sidewalk. For the first time, I would have an expanse that received full sun! During my first spring break here, eight months after we moved in, Floyd rented a turf cutter and the transformation began. And while it is best that you are not a perfectionist if your ambitions run to gardening, it is most certainly helpful that you at least be a bit of an optimist. Four hundred square feet to clean, compost, till, plant, and mulch? No problem! I’m on vacation; everything is possible!

 

The mind casts a merciful veil over what became of my back that spring. Let us simply say that once Floyd had created those kick butt landscape edgers out of quarter inch steel (doesn’t everyone have hundreds of feet of 6 inch wide quarter inch thick steel lying about to create edging? And doesn’t everyone have a husband who can curve said steel up the slight slope from the street to the sidewalk in order to make room for stone walkways so that people parking on the street can exit their cars and get to the sidewalk without crushing too many little lantana faces?), and I was faced with that long expanse of dark earth, I felt more than a little daunted.

 

Too much a slave to impulse to hesitate for long, I made the rounds of my favorite nurseries and filled the back of the old pickup with a mind-boggling array of Texas-happy plants: tall, short, deciduous, evergreen, yellow flowered, red, purple, pink; and a sack of wildflower seeds to toss into the gaps. Over a hundred plants went into the expanse, until I had a garden that looks like all new gardens do (okay, maybe you can have a few days of perfection in this enterprise): colorful, healthy, and all potential. With those lovely dark mulched spaces all around what seemed like tiny specimens of my favorite perennials. Joy!

 

The first year took more watering than I’d planned for, due in no small part to the hottest, driest summer on record. When the heat finally broke, I resolved to give the sidewalk garden NO water this year: what managed to survive, would survive. I started planting cacti, agave, yucca, and rocks.

 

Spring 2012 was mercifully rainy right up until May. The sidewalk garden came in lush and brilliantly colorful. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds arrived to take advantage, just as they were supposed to. Neighbors thanked me every day, some of them biking or jogging out of their way to go past the sidewalk garden and see what was in bloom from one week to the next.

 

What follows is a series of essays designed more or less as an unruly journal of this sidewalk garden and the other gardens surrounding this silly white brick house with its garage facade in a newish neighborhood of tediously similar houses. I hope they convey some of the fun and miseries associated with being an unruly gardener in the land of HOA’s and the people who truly believe that uniformity adds value to real estate.