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.