June 21, 2017
It’s been a lovely spring after a great wet winter, turning the entire state into a bouncing floral bouquet. We drove through the Gold Country in March and were astonished by the fuchsia sprays of Western Redbud lining Highway 49 for miles. Then there was the yellow mustard carpeting the Malibu hills and lining the walls of the wild coastal canyon below our home. More recently in that canyon, along the narrow trail that goes deep into the woods, there’s been the sherbet orange accents of monkey flowers, the vivd violet pink of rock rose and the lipstick red of California fuchsia poking out from the thickets of green. Later this summer I’ll look for the small clutch of tiger lilies that bloom at the far northern tip of the trail. All these wild flowers have got me “gardening,” tucking small pots of flowers and coleus into larger pots on our patio and alongside the front door. It’s amazing how satisfying such small efforts can be: the coleus, the stunning blue of a new hydrangea and the promise of exactly two delphiniums rising from a thatch of lobelia. Proving, to me, at least, that gardens don’t have to be an all consuming, heroic and huge statement on the part of the gardener. I’ve lived ten years now with my potted pals and we’re fundamentally happy, they do their thing, I do mine, and for the real surprsies I look to the wilderness beyond the edge of our townhome property. But it wasn’t always easy to reconcile with these more manageable circumstances. The piece I’m sharing here is from Arroyo Magazine, March, 2010, written at a time when the soil was too recently turned for such peace of mind.
Phantom Garden Syndrome
Arroyo Magazine, March, 2010
When I think of the garden I left four years ago when we sold our Glendale home, many images come to mind, including the annual spring freesia festival, bigger every year as the bulbs established themselves in both the terraced front and back. There were also the orange Clivia, the western redbud next to the Ceonothus’ electric-blue blooms, the wild blue iris and the heart-melting sight of the Texas dawn bougainvillea that colonized the boxwood lining my entry stairs. And I can’t forget — though I wish I could — the climbing iceberg rose lolling about the upper pergola, offering a graceful, impossibly romantic branch as though it were a French courtesan’s arm. I called it my Fragonard bower, and underlying that was the yellow Lady Banks rose, like a popcorn blanket laid comfortingly across the top of the pergola. The pergola was built to take in the “view shed,” as my landscape designer called it, or “killer” view, as Sunset Magazine once dubbed it. And leaving those views and that enchanted space was hard, but necessary and ultimately for the best.
It would have been harder, though, had the jacaranda tree ever bloomed during its two-year spell at the top of the garden. This was the plan: From my home office, where I was supposed to be cultivating a lush writing career, I’d take comfort in its backlit splendor as the overly demanding elder house and seductive young garden continued to drain my energy and my writing withered from neglect.
I realized that I’d sunk too much of myself into the garden the spring I felt the only thing I had to look forward to that year was the jacaranda’s bloom. It was with herculean effort that I broke the bonds of obsession, moved to a less taxing address near wilderness that needed no maintenance from me and filled a patio with potted darlings — a collection sized in accordance with the attention I could in good conscience grant them, while I got other things done.
But I am surprised by the extent to which I miss my lost paradise still. There are mornings I wake to a fresh ache of familiar longing and it’s the jacaranda I never saw in bloom, with its lavender flowers and lacy green leaves, that’s in my mind’s eye. Despite all the miraculous things I did see, it is the imagined garden of the never was that lingers.
And I’m not alone in experiencing phantom garden syndrome. My friend Jack was working in Washington, D.C., when he and his wife, Jane, bought an old Virginia farm on which he planted an entire orchard of carefully chosen heritage apples. Business and family concerns called them back to California before they had sampled a single fruit born of all that effort. Now he buys exquisite heritage apples at a market in the city where he works and I have multiple jacarandas in astonishing bloom in my new neighborhood, so neither of us was left wholly bereft of our original dreams. Still, we both carry in our minds visions never fully realized.
My friend Sean has left multiple jacarandas behind over the years while moving from place to place in the good-school-for-the-kids quest that consumes so many parents. Indeed, he has left behind a whole grove of trees he never saw flower in their full glory, including multiple Chinese flame trees and a eucalyptus that has grown to 25 feet in someone else’s care. All of it was planted in an effort at “redressing neglected landscapes,” he writes from his current abode, where the garden is a
potted, more easily transported one. We both now realize the need for gardens that may need to move along. The upside of a potted garden: The soil is less a concern, and the flora are easier to control and rearrange.
I know from my friend Rosemary that garden memories can last a lifetime. Forty years out and enjoying a hydrangea-filled terraced hillside in the Bay Area, she still thinks about the al fresco dining garden surrounded by flowering shrubs and artfully placed Japanese maple trees she planted in Highgate, North London. She thinks fondly of what it may have become, the pleasure it might have given those who followed along on her “elegantly paved” path. For that is the pleasure gardeners can take in what they’ve left behind — the unimaginable gifts waiting to be discovered by others, while the original gardeners get on with
the work of turning over fresh soil and putting down new roots.