A Landscape So Beautiful, It Spurns Help From The Gardeners



Monkey-puzzle tree at McConnell Arboretum

I like to think I could garden anywhere.  I think I know all the secrets, all two
of them: mulch regularly, and obtain composted manure by any means
necessary, whether that means panicking the horses, children, and
instructors at the barn where your daughter rides, or blithely
interpreting a sheep-rearing neighbor’s offer of a "little" old bedding
to mean three dozen wheelbarrow loads.

But Allan’s post yesterday about the struggles of gardening in the South got me thinking about the trials faced by my mother-in-law on her beautiful 40 acres outside beautiful Red Bluff, CA–and I’m not talking about feeding and humoring my family of five for eight solid days at Thanksgiving.

Whenever I visit Arlene, my confidence in my ability to turn any piece of ground into a garden wavers a bit. This is Big Sky country, the Northern California version, rattlesnake country, a country for golden grasses, blue oaks with their twisted branches and stingy little leaves, and snow-covered volcanic mountains in the distance adding the most refreshing possible contrast to the dry hot landscape.  It’s not Sissinghurst country, where sophisticates with flexible sex lives exclaim over the delphiniums. 

My mother-in-law loves plants, but is mainly frustrated with her growing conditions. The soil at her place is such dead hard clay that it feels frozen when you walk on it even when the air temperature is 110 degrees. Oh yeah, and the air temperature is often 110 degrees in summer. It only rains in winter, when the grasses briefly green up, only to turn golden again a few weeks later. They’ve had drought for three or four years, so even winter has been dry. The climate appears to be slow torture for everything except junipers and the natives. Oleanders planted in the ground fifteen years ago are still three feet high.  And even the natives–those oaks and manzanita bushes–seem twisted up about the general unfairness of life. So my mother-in-law gardens mainly in large containers.

I like looking out at Mount Lassen from her deck, beer in hand, and musing about what I would do if I lived in that part of the world.  Maybe, if I brought my own special sheet composting methods to bear, I could fix that soil eventually. (The only special part is my uncanny ability to make friends with any neighbor who owns grazing animals.)  Maybe I could plant stuff that would really bask in the brutal heat.  Maybe I would finally be able to eat as many tomatoes as I wanna.  But oh, the xeriscaping challenges presented by that climate are brutal!  I think here is where I would fall down–on the water question, the question that dominates life in California, so much of which is desert, so much of which has such magical soil that if you pour a tea-kettle of water on barren ground, the blooms rise up to meet the spout before you are even finished.

The contrast between watered ground and unwatered ground is so stark here that the beautiful creeks run through ribbons of green in landscapes that are otherwise crackly brown and gold. That’s one of the reasons I was glad last week to go see the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, a three year-old garden that is part of the wonderful Turtle Bay Exploratorium in Redding, CA. The gardens sit next to the Sacramento River. Bottom-land. If the full gardening potential of this part of the world were expressed anywhere, it would be there.

On a day that was 60 degrees and brilliantly sunny, I was happy to see a monkey-puzzle tree at McConnell, a Chilean native named by one of the first Brits to lay eyes on it, who declared that how to climb it would puzzle even a monkey. I want to live in a monkey-puzzle tree forest. I was happy to see other unfamiliar plants like the strawberry tree, too, and to see that artemisias grow as big as Buicks in this climate. But on the whole, I was disappointed. The gardens were just so unsumptuous and underplanted.  Yes, it was winter, but much of my walk seemed yellow and sad.

Then I learned why: a wildfire had raced down the garden corridor just last August. And, according to the link above, the McConnell people are such sustainability types that they are not out there making themselves look good by replacing things like mad. They are allowing the oaks to drop their leaves from the heat and create a soil-healing mulch, and waiting to dig the shrubs up to see what will recover.

Whew.  Tough place to garden under the best of circumstances.


  1. Whew — after your comments today and Alan’s yesterday, Wisconsin with 5 inches of snow on the ground and a temp of 0 degrees, doesn’t seem half bad! And may I say your sentence about Sissinghurst may be the best line I have ever read about that garden. You made my morning.

  2. On a related note check out my post on one of the gardens at San Diego Wild Animal Park from Monday:


    I could definitely have fun xeriscaping with some of this stuff but like you say the temptations to add to them the odd waterlover would be great.

    On our trip we stopped at a interstate pull-in area on our way through san joaquim to see sprinklers merrily watering lush green grass….in a motorway pull-in area….in the middle of miles and miles of natural golden brown. Epic fail.

  3. I love that area, I remember driving through it during the fires and being so sad. I love how wild it looks, no matter what. And it’s a good thing your m-i-l likes container gardening, as that’s basically what working with that soil is like. If you want tomatoes in that country, that is what raised beds are for.

  4. A monkey puzzle tree can be a bit of a curse. They drop sharp scales that make walking barefoot impossible if you are within about 20 feet of one. They drop bowling ball sized cones that are similarly covered in spikes.

    A vendor at the 1905 Lewis and Clark exposition here in Portland sold a bunch, and there are some amazing 100 foot specimens around here. Great tree for a neighbor 3 doors down to have.

  5. Monkey puzzle trees were a part of my childhood in Britain. Mostly one tree stuck in a small patch of concrete in front of a semi-detached house. I think my dentist may have had one or his neighbour. The tree looked sterile in a sterile environment, the epitome of everything I hated about what passes for suburbia in Britain.

  6. great reading !
    or should I say great writing ? ( ! )

    I love the texture of a fallen Monkey tree branch ( Araucaria) .
    As the 12 to 15 inch long spiny spiky foliage drops to the ground and dries out the spikes turn inward in a very definite twisted and curved formation, evoking a plaited rope look and texture.
    The look is pre-historic and oh so incredibly beautiful. ( I have a handful sitting on a Japanese tansu displayed as natural sculpture )
    But I would not want to have this deadly beauty growing on my property.
    It is one extremely dangerous tree.
    We had to take down a very large mature specimen because a falling spike ladened cone, weighing over 20 pounds , almost killed a child.

  7. It will be interesting to see what changes the fire brings to the landscape over time, as to your point, our first instinct is usually to replant like crazy. I’m no expert, but I know there are plants that rely on fire as the signal to reproduce.

    This past spring, someone abandoned a car in front of our home and lit it on fire (my cross street is not exactly rich-folk territory if you haven’t figured that out). The heat was long and intense enough to scorch most of the plants in my front yard, and a month later I noticed that several previously well behaved plants were sending out volunteers like crazy. It makes me wonder if plant response to external stresses like fire is both simultaneously more universal and less predictable than I thought.

  8. This is about one of the most beautifully written gardening blog entries I have read. Brava.

    The Sissinghurst line should be remembered as a classic.

  9. Thanks for this piece. Originally from the East, I now garden on the high plains of CO right up against the Rocky Mountain foothills, a desert in its own right. I’m relearning “everything” I knew about plants and pests and water and sustainability, and your post is encouraging. Gardening here in the West is… daunting to say the least. Here, more than any place else I’ve ever lived, the best gardening lessons aren’t coming from books or magazines (or blogs); they’re coming from the native landscape itself. I appreciate the humility, wonder and awe you’ve expressed about gardening in the West.

  10. Oh I wish I had time to blog and post pictures of the Araucaria forest I hiked through in Chile! It was truly the most awesome sight, little ones mixed in with huge monsters. The big trees’ trunks were absolutely blackened with fire, but still had their green tops, survivors of thousands of years because of this ability. I was in a bus, cresting over the mountain range of Argentina/Chile, and they were there, all scattered on this ridge above the pass, looking EXACTLY like the Dr. Seuess books from a distance. Pretty cool.
    Its funny to think that their closest living relative is currently in all the grocery and home improvement stores serving double duty as a decorated potted tabletop christmas tree, (Norfolk Island Pine!)

  11. Here in So. Calif, the sophisticates with flexible sex lives exclaim over the Salvia pachyphylla, but other than that minor difference….

    A wonderful piece. And along with Allan’s yesterday it emphasizes how gardeners on the West Coast, the South and Southwest really have to take off the British spectacles when we make gardens and look hard and unblinking at what makes these special places tick. (In Vita’s defense, she spent lots of time in Iran/Persia when Harold was ambassador there and loved many of its plants. I doubt she’d attempt growing delphiniums in Redding.)

  12. …..Its funny to think that their closest living relative is currently in all the grocery and home improvement stores serving double duty as a decorated potted tabletop christmas tree, (Norfolk Island Pine!)…”

    Very interesting comment — when I see these little potted Norfolk Island Pines, I think of their relatives along the beaches of Australia — 50 feet high, braving the winds off the Pacific, and often dressed with coloured lights for Christmas — a 50 foot Christmas tree is not something one can ignore, nor the effort involved in getting those lights up there.

  13. I break up my heavy clay soil with compost, sharp sand and a heavy pick. She might want to try some natives that already like her soil too. Good luck!

  14. Lovely read.

    Wow, we sure take our soil (and rain) for granted.

    Love that monkey tree! Would my Dawn Redwood be angry if I pruned it to look like this? LOL

  15. Monkey puzzle trees show up in a lot of old English mysteries. There must have been quite horticultural fashion for them at some point. I was glad to finally see one, but never knew how they got such an odd name. Thank you, Michelle.

  16. There’s a guy here in Arizona your mother-in-law needs to talk to. We have almost the same soil and climate conditions here. His name is Gary Petterson, he is a soil scientist, and has a company named Gardener’s Eden (www.GardenersEdenAZ.com). He can provide her with additives and nutrients that will turn that rock-hard ground into fertile soil. He’s done it for me.

  17. Commonweeder – Monkey puzzle were very fashionable at one point, as with a lot of foreign trees there was a bit of a craze when stock first became available much like [some] people now want to be the first with the new i-phone.

    In fact if you go round many of the stately homes in the UK you can find specimens at many of them of certain species that are almost exactly the same age.

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