The last (and I do mean last) place I lived in Denver had a microscopic yard with little sunlight. I sat so close to my neighbors, I swear I could hear them shaving. Lesson learned, a year later, I secured five acres on the lush rural periphery of Portland, Oregon, so far away from the next house that you could throw a rock with all your might and still fall short of their roof by half. Not that I tried that.
The acreage had been a nursery back in its heyday but now it lay fallow with overgrown bushes and trees still in their rows–sweet gum next to Atlas Cedar, privet next to laurel, rhododendron and azalea sharing a bed. The bane of the Northwest, Himalaya Blackberry, entwined the whole, holding everything tight in its stickery grip like Sleeping Beauty’s castle in a spell of thorns. The defunct gas pump by the garage was historically frozen at thirty-four cents a gallon (don’t you wish?) and wasn’t serving up much more than low rent housing for hornets. The garage was large and spare and the little house was a tiny blank slate but there was a shining jewel in this modest crown: a greenhouse.
And not just any old fiberglass shack, either, this was the gardener’s mother lode. You could park twelve cars or two semi tractor trailers side by side in there. It had a good frame, a gravel floor, and was (theoretically) hooked up to both water and electricity. There was even a ventilation fan at one end but none of it had been used in years, perhaps decades.
As in any hoarding episode, there are always treasures hidden amid the trash, like hundreds of pots in eleven different sizes and styles, yards of bagged soil and peat moss, hoses, tools, growing tables, a soil sifter, a potting table, seed trays, a truck load of milled wood in all shapes and sizes, cedar shakes (which came in handy for the mailbox), and several hundred neglected but amazingly hardy baby yews, aucubas, and regular and variegated boxwoods. I set up the potting table and got dirty.
Mmmm, wood. I dismantled the growing beds and gained a dozen lovely lengths of 10-foot-long, pressure-treated goodness that magically transformed into a deck.
I used most of the variegated boxwood to install a hedge along one edge of the property, punctuating every ugly metal fence post of unsightly barbed wire with a delicate curly willow start courtesy of a friendly neighbor down the road.
Then, I spread out over a dozen flats of seed starting trays and whipped myself into a planting frenzy, breaking open seed packets I’d been hoarding for years: deep magenta celosia, mixed pink and white cosmos, four kinds of sunflowers, jasmine scented nicotiana, golden marigold, flame orange zinnia, mixed carnations, baby’s breath, and scarlet runner beans. I was used to planting for Denver where the soil was hard and bare. No one told me how fertile the Pacific Northwest would be.
The undulating gardens I cut in to soften the hard edges of the out buildings exploded in all directions with flowers and fauna: hummingbirds zipped around like arrogant little bottle rockets; songbirds kept a running symphony going in the bushes; cinnabar moths decorated the grass like holly berries and moles dug up dark brown landing strips for them in the lawn; velvety Hawk moths made evening stealth visits to the nicotiana; rough-skinned Newts roamed the sidewalk after each rain; tree frogs tried to keep me awake at night under the bedroom window; and deer guided their fawns through the morning mist to sample the spread. In that first year, I learned a few things.
1. Denver soil is to Oregon soil what instant coffee is to crack cocaine: northwestern volcanic humus is powerful stuff. The joke about sticking a pencil in the ground and watching it grow is not as far fetched as one might think. You do not need to overplant to fill a space, the space will be filled in short order. And the sidewalk. And the front step. And the doorway.
3. If you want comedy, plant tall, spindly sunflowers and then watch fat squirrels try to figure out what they’re doing wrong half way up.
4. Slugs think marigolds and zinnias are lollipops.
5. There are 10 different kinds of garden slugs in Oregon.
6. Weeding is not necessary on a daily basis in the Willamette Valley. Weeding is necessary on an hourly basis in the Willamette Valley.
8. Fawns are cute as hell when they are playing twenty feet away from you on your front lawn.
9. Himalaya Blackberry is evil in the garden and delicious on pancakes.
10. Nature is famous for throwing the occasional curve ball.
The following year, I rolled up my sleeves with renewed determination. After installing a fire pit, a boardwalk, two trellises and an arbor, all out of reclaimed materials found on site, I was ready to broaden my horizons into the four and a half acres I hadn’t touched yet. The landlord secured the services of a neighborhood excavation company to level (literally) the playing field. Here, you see the brambles striking back at the bulldozer with the well-known and much-feared Wrap Yourself Around Everything and Make It Bleed Maneuver. I took another run at planting the front walkway
I planted multiple sunflower varieties again, including Teddy Bear, Vanilla Ice, Velvet Queen, and the famous Mammoth that grew so heavy with seeds, it bent down to face the ground. I let them all dry on the stalk for handy winter bird feeding.
I relegated the cosmos to the side garden to surround the deck with snow white Jasmine Scented Nicotiana.
In the evenings, I got comfy in a lawn chair and breathed in the sweet aroma while I waited for hawk moths to appear and work over the flowers like little helicopters of pink and grey silk. Sometimes, off in the distance, the coyotes would sing eerie chorales.
You can just see the start of the boxwood hedge back there.
I struck a deal with the landlord to tend a large potato patch for him if he left his luxurious, self-propelled rototiller on site for me to use. And use it, I did. I dreamed up a magnificent organic vegetable garden. It took both of us and four passes with the tiller to break up the compacted, weedy soil, but once softened it became warm velvet.In went Birdhouse Gourd, Sugar Pie Pumpkin, Big Max Pumpkin, Striped Klondike Watermelon, Sugar Baby Watermelon, Crimson Sweet Watermelon, Honeydew Melon, Sweet-n-Early Cantaloupe, Burpee’s Ambrosia Hybrid Cantaloupe, Table King Acorn Squash, Buttercup Squash, Blue Lake Bush Bean, zucchini, cucumber, Honey Select Triplesweet Hybrid Sweet Corn, Jubilee Hybrid Supersweet Sweet Corn, Early Snowball Cauliflower, Waltham 29 Broccoli, Sweet Basil, cilantro, parsley, leek, Evergreen Long White Bunching Onion, Walla Wall Onion, Early California Red Onion, artichokes, Sugar Snap Pole Pea, Ferry’s Round Dutch Cabbage, New York Crisphead Lettuce, Romaine Lettuce, Mesclun Salad Mix Lettuce, Black-seeded Simpson Lettuce, Olympia Spinach, jalapeno pepper, California Wonder Pepper, Celebrity Tomato, Sweet 100 Tomato, Danver’s Halflong Carrot, Nantes Coreless Carrot, Dante Halflong Carrot, and radish.
Hey, I had a greenhouse. That’s what you do with a greenhouse.The sunflowers and birdhouse gourds wove themselves into an existing wire fence and, holy crap, were those gourds prolific. I still remember their strange white flowers.In the wake of all this activity and hope, The Garden, Part II, produced another harvest of hilarious lessons.
1. Deer think broccoli heads are M&Ms. Once they know where they are, you will never, ever have full grown broccoli without a shotgun.
3. Onions take forever to mature. For. Ev. Er. Just buy the freakin’ things at the market.
4. If you think zucchini is a vegetable-making machine with no Off switch, you haven’t seen a happy cantaloupe vine or four.
5. Don’t plant radishes unless you love them. Really. Don’t.
7. There will come a point early on in the weeding nightmare when you realize you should have planted all the rows exactly lawn-mower-width apart and just fired the damned thing up every weekend.
8. Soaker hoses sound like a hassle. They’re not. The definition of “a hassle” is dragging a heavy, sun-heated black hose around a huge garden in late July while sweat drips down into your underwear.
9. Planting in orderly rows may be visually satisfying but taking a tip from Native American tradition and bunching things together, like corn stalks shading tender melon vines, really does work. Ditto with planting stinky things next to tasty things to deter hooved nibblers.
10. If you discover moles, just move.
Was all the sweat and toil worth it? Hell, yeah. Nothing tastes as good as tomatoes from your back yard. Nothing feels as good as knowing that the only things making up those lovely scarlet orbs is sunlight, soil, and water. Okay, and tilling, planting, weeding, irrigating, cursing, bleeding, and transplanting.
I only lived there for about two years but I wouldn’t trade a day of it. I had the best landlord I’d ever encountered before or since as well as freedom, space, silence, beauty, privacy, and vegetables. And peace, I had fields of peace. Even with the owls hooting like foghorns at night during the mating season, I had it. Now, I’m back to a tiny yard with no sunlight and noisy neighbors. (sigh)
Summers of 2006 – 2007