Gardener’s Reverie: Is the Grass Greener in the Golden State?

By Friends & Neighbors June 15, 2013 07:29

Marianne Willburn

By Marianne Willburn

Breathing in the sharp, spicy fragrance of zonal geraniums, I stand quietly for a moment, my eyes closed. Around me, there are notes of lemon blossom and pyracantha – the deeply resinous scent of rosemary and the maize-like breath of ceanothus. Unhampered by dry, cool air, they quietly intermingle in a seemingly indefinable fragrance – yet I instantly recognize it … I can define it. I am home.

Except that I am not. I am standing instead in the Mediterranean garden of the great glass conservatory of Longwood Gardens, 35 miles outside Philadelphia and precisely 2,805 miles from the Sierra Nevada town I will always consider my native soil.

On this beautiful late-spring day, I am researching an article about classic English mixed borders. It won’t be difficult. With high average rainfall over the growing season, the borders at Longwood are bursting with the exuberance of an East Coast spring.

Yet I am planted here, eyes closed, breathing deeply and ignoring the people who push past me to marvel at a healthy olive tree. Why did I leave the lush decadence of the Idea Garden 10 minutes ago and sneak into this room filled with the gray-green of drought-tolerant foliage?

I know the truth. California gardening is hard. It’s decomposed granite and Western pocket gophers. It’s hot sun and endless foxtails. There are diamondback rattlesnakes behind every stone wall, and hungry mule deer send countless gardeners to
asylums every year. If you’re lucky enough to escape the rattlers, you might be carried off by a cougar while transplanting peas. Who in his or her right mind would willingly choose to garden there?

Yet I’m still standing here, eyes closed, breathing in the scent of a California garden.

To snap out of it, I force myself to think about a typical East Coast spring. The average gardener can throw together a passable cottage garden complete with vegetable patch by throwing seed over his shoulder in early March and holding deck parties until May. Soil is black and fertile, or red and fertile. Most gardeners use water barrels as decorative features and think xeriscaping has something to do with gardening in outer space.

Finally opening my eyes, I stare at the late spring garden on the other side of the glass. I cannot see the insects, and I cannot feel the heavy air. The truth is, it’s all fun and games back here till gardeners get hurt at the end of June – when punishing heat and humidity indexes combine with plagues of insects and make life pretty miserable. Evenings find us researching new places to live over a bottle of wine that hasn’t been made from grapes sprayed with fungicide every 10 days.

Places like California.

Who cares about rattlesnakes? My sister grows oranges in glazed ceramic tubs on a deck overlooking hills of wild lupine and golden poppies. She took my East Coast recipe for pomegranate martinis and brutally one-upped me with fresh pomegranate juice from the tree near her front door. Blue ceanothus grows happily along her driveway, and this year she and her husband purchased a small foothills winery – obviously secure in the knowledge that fungicide costs would not factor in their bottom line.

Who needs rain? Over the past 30 years, my parents have enriched their red clay soil with every kind of animal manure that’s legally traded. Their soil now holds 10 times the moisture that mine does. After 30 years of amortization, the tomato that used to cost my father $64 to grow now tops out at 20 cents. Meanwhile, my tomatoes start well and end badly, plagued by (you guessed it) a fungal disease they caught from hanging out with the walnut. The little tramps.

And the bugs, ye gods, the bugs! Ever pick up a can of mosquito repellent and wonder what all those other insects listed on the label looked like?

Back in the halcyon days of my Sonora childhood, I used to wonder too. Now I know what a ‘no-see-um’ looks like (or at least what it feels like). I am familiar with chiggers and midges and greenflies and deer ticks, and can give you 40 facts about Lyme disease without reaching for a brochure.

In between the swatting I force myself to remember that hefty portions of the rough and the smooth are meted out in every environment. I have to wear a netted hat against insects, and my sister has to snake-fence her deck. But however we may grumble, we’re both joyfully gardening and adapted to our climates.

After all, it’s what gardeners do – we make the best of our situation and then make fun of other gardeners while secretly coveting their growing conditions and trying to smuggle their plants across state lines.

At the end of my California reverie, the jostle of the crowd becomes too much. I tear myself away and head back outside, taking off my shoes to enjoy the lush springiness of a perfectly manicured lawn.

However large her pomegranates, my sister can’t grow a lawn like this – and I’ll tell her that as soon as possible. You have no idea how cruelly she taunts me with her lemons.

Sonora native Marianne Willburn is a freelance writer living in Brunswick, Maryland. Read more of her garden musings at

 Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Friends & Neighbors June 15, 2013 07:29
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