I recently wrote a magazine article about an expansive Healdsburg garden with a heavy emphasis on succulents and other low-water plants. After touring the garden with the woman who’d designed it, one glaring fact emerged: “low-water” does not mean no-water, nor does it mean low-maintenance. The garden’s lushness seemed to owe much to a sophisticated irrigation system (set in accordance with strict local limits on water usage) and a team of two gardeners who visit for four to five hours a week. In addition, an arborist visits annually to check on the trees, and a landscape contractor comes once a year as well, for a big late-winter cleanup.
This isn’t the first time that a “lifestyle” assignment has made me just a little bit envious, but with this one I found myself coveting not so much the garden as the team behind it. How we could have used these folks eight years ago, the first time we laid eyes on the 4000-square-foot pile of dirt and weeds that made up our new backyard. I for one felt woozy at the prospect of figuring out what to do with it, given that the outdoor spaces of my past dwellings had consisted of a small balcony, a fire escape, and a porch the size of a twin bed. Nothing green had lived for long on any of them.
At first we threw wildflower seeds at the problem. Peter, who had grown up gardening with his parents and had a natural affinity for it, always seemed to consider himself a farmer first, winemaker second. So he knew what he was doing as he dug out weeds, rocks, and roots; raked and rototilled; hand-sowed the seeds; fertilized; and watered. Sure enough by our first full summer in the house, the yard was an explosion of sky lupin, mountain plox, farewell-to-spring, and California poppy.
During those early years, we left the front of the house alone, mainly because its only green spot was a sloped triangle dominated by a tangle of acacia trees. Not much to look at, but they afforded some privacy. Then PG&E took issue with the acacias, which were growing too close to power lines, and cut them down. Suddenly that front “yard” was abruptly reduced to a big patch of stumps.
With work demands ramping up for both of us and a toddler in the house, this time we agreed to outsource, and we somehow found a designer who was willing to work within our limited budget—a woman in her early 50s named Julia who had grown up in Marin and earned her landscape architecture degree at Berkeley. She and I met a few times to talk about color and texture, and the realistic limits to what Peter and I could take on as far as maintenance and watering. Then we went shopping together at Home Depot, where we bought native grasses, succulents, kangaroo paw and lamb’s ear plants, barberry and buddleia bushes, irises, and an olive tree.
Peter worked with a helper on the installation, and our front garden emerged. It looked pretty minimal at first—reminding me of the gardening adage that various family members had invoked over the years: Sleep, Creep, Leap. Sleep applies to that first year after you plant new plants, when they’re busy forming a root system and nothing much happens above ground. The second year, the plant is still focused on its root system, but new foliage and flowers start to creep into view. Year three: leaping. The roots are established, and flowers and foliage finally look the way you’d hoped they would when you first planted.
Sure enough, a few years later Julia’s garden came to life. But by that time, our backyard was a different story. Those Year One wildflowers had lasted for a single season, and after that Peter had created a meadow by planting bunch grass and weeding dutifully, maintaining a certain controlled chaos. Until he couldn’t. I’m a learn-by-doing sort, and so one August day almost three years ago now, he walked me through each gardening task, offering careful and elaborate explanations. He could no longer climb stairs, so he watched from the deck above as I watered the four wine barrels he’d planted with strawberries and arugula—all the while providing a running critique of my watering technique, in a way that would have infuriated me a month earlier but now just made me laugh, and cry. And promptly forget pretty much everything he had just told me.
Big sloped yards that sit under eucalyptus and pine trees and are exposed to strong coastal winds don’t take kindly to neglect. Nine months after my gardening tutorial, with the chaos no longer controlled, the yard looked decidedly more “vacant lot” than “meadow.” So I decided to call Julia. It had been two years since we’d spoken, so I wasn’t too surprised that her number was no longer in service. Then I Googled her name to find her new number, and instead found her obituary. Bigger surprise. She’d died of cancer as well, two months after Peter. Briefly, my vacant-lot backyard seemed a fine fit for the state of things, for the loss of a lovely woman in her prime who had rowed in the Bay, tended her garden, was loved by her husband and kids.
Eventually I did find help from a surfer-artist-landscaper who owns a native plant nursery nearby. Dan listened as I talked, probably too much, about every last thing Peter and Julia had done to create and maintain the lush wildness we’d briefly enjoyed. Then he drew a sketch of a path that would meander through the yard, with small Sonoma fieldstone boulders and clusters of black sage, bunch grass, and coyote brush on either side. He and his partner worked on the plan while Willa and I were on a summer trip, and when we got back, I was struck by how a simple path that didn’t really lead to anything still managed to give a sense of order and beauty to the space.
The next spring, we planted artemesia, gumplant, and still more bunch grass along our driveway—an area that Willa’s now in charge of watering. Everywhere I look I see the things I want to do next, and I hope she’ll be my partner in crime. I’d like to put trellises or a living wall against the bare, windowless back of the house, plant wildflowers along a side path, and ring our front plum tree with stones. I’d like to find someone more artistic than I am to paint different images on a few of the wide mossy panels of our back wooden fence. Maybe we’ll paint one a year, creating something like the Lakota winter counts I learned about while editing an article years ago. Year of the Corn Feast, Year of the Last Great Buffalo Hunt, Year the Stars Fell. Year of the Path.