All by Itself

I gave up real vegetable production gardening when I came to northern coastal California. I had had real vegetable gardens in the Midwest, the last, a half-acre spectacle in the countryside north of Milwaukee. I got it going, got the local farmer to disc the ground, fallow for years, and I sweetened up the soil with lots of manure. I planted it out and then departed for California. I surrendered it to the care of others in our big group house to weed and harvest but they smoked too much and left it, I heard, overgrown with festering and rotting unpicked tomatoes and broccoli, potatoes molding under the nice straw mounds. It was sad to hear that all my hard work, that potential bounty, had succumbed to ruin. I had taken courses at the University of Wisconsin AG School in soil science, soil chemistry and vegetable production. My gardens were bountiful and surprising in their productivity. I felt a bit like a pro.

In California it was all different; challenges I’d never faced. First, the clay soil; the addition of sand to loosen it up like I had done in Wisconsin created an aggregate; turned the ground to concrete. Soil in the West needs a huge amount of work to make a go, with the addition of deer proofing and the constant irrigation needed in the blazing summer and the cool foggy nights made it difficult for fruit to set, gave vegetable gardening a new set of problems. Gophers ‘ll kill off any remaining drop of enthusiasm. I was spoiled by the deep topsoil and moist warm nights of the Midwest.

I don’t have production gardens any more but, of course, it’s done very successfully here. We subscribe to the local vegetable box once a week and from May to October we get fresh veggies, organic heirloom varieties. We’ve got a few tomatoes set out every year, sometimes peppers and squash and popcorn for the dramatic big stalks, but no garden you’d rely on for food. Mostly we grow flowers with a few fruit trees. Lots of flowers the deer don’t bother, four kinds of lavender, rosemary, ceanothis and bunches of daffodils the gophers hate—sometimes they even dig them up. You’ll find a bulb or two dug up and layed out on the grass every spring. This morning on my walk about sunrise I see a clump of Iris’ growing in the little circle garden at the top of the drive, it’s got daffodils and lavender growing under an adolescent oak. This clump has a couple of low growing big white lettucey flowers, pristine and dewy with lots of buds about to take off their tight green pants and show you their goods. These you couldn’t plant, they are the wild Douglas Irises. I call Judith over to look; she says, “Gosh they did that all by themselves.”

Special thanks to Martin Taylor for his photograph of the white Douglas Iris taken on the Mount Tam watershed near the Phoenix Lake Reservoir. To see more of his work:

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