In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
June, 2006
Regional Report

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Fuchias bring back fond memories of my grandmother's garden.

Cultivating Gardeners

To me, gardening is as compelling as breathing. My husband thinks gardening is sadistic torture, a sad residue from his youth when he had to mow the 1/3-acre lawn with a manual push mower. Why do parents do this to kids? He takes no joy whatsoever in watching things grow, although he will eat whatever I bring home from the garden (with the exception of cilantro).

On the other hand, I took up gardening late in life. My grandmother ran a small nursery called Borgone's Begonias, where she specialized in begonias and fuchsias. My cousin and I were much more interested in popping the fat fuchsia buds than tending and nurturing the plants. I do remember being fascinated by the bleeding heart (Dicentra) that grew in abundance along her driveway. The graceful arching stems with their multitude of delicate pink hearts were enchanting to at least one little girl's imagination.

I also loved spending time in her old wooden greenhouse, where the air was humid and heavy even on the coldest winter day. Small frogs and confused butterflies were often to be found under the benches. My grandmother's greenhouse was filled with a mish-mash of plants in the process of propagation, but what I loved best were the big "pet" plants she kept there.

A huge staghorn fern filled one entire corner; it must have been 50 years old. A string of hearts (Ceropegia woodii) hung from one of the rafters, which was so big you couldn't get your arms around it. I still have a piece of that plant, although every time I hang it outside, it gets stolen (I always keep a few cuttings going in my office). I have also kept a cutting from a Monstera that grew along the back wall of her greenhouse. The leaves were as big as cartwheels, and it produced a strange banana-shaped fruit that smelled like strawberries.

The outside of the greenhouse was covered in an ancient Clematis armandi. The dark green waxy leaves were the perfect backdrop for the white blossoms. It looked like a butterfly convention when it was in bloom. A peony grew beside the clematis with gigantic pink flowers. The old Bing cherry tree was a treat for the entire family. It stood in the middle of the yard and provided shade for the collection of potted ferns. On summer evenings, we would sit on the swing bench and eat those fat black cherries until our tummies were bursting and our fingers were purple.

On the other side of the greenhouse and through the rickety wooden gate was the cactus garden where Charlie the blind chicken lived with his seeing-eye duck companion. Those two birds were inseparable and slept together in the wood shed. The cactus garden always seemed off-limits, perhaps because it was behind the gate and the private territory of the two mysterious birds.

My cousins and I played in our grandmother's garden and found it to be a place of magic and discovery. There were no lawns for us to mow, only clean white sheets blowing in the breeze to serve as secret tents.

Yeas later, I worked side-by-side with Papa to prune the Concord grapes that grew on the arbor covering the driveway. His masterful (if heavy) hand at pruning taught me the art of selection and removal. Helping my grandmother propagate cuttings taught me to relish the alchemy of creating new life.

The greenhouse has long since fallen down, the Bing cherry tree is but a memory, and my grandmother is in that big garden in the sky. But the gifts that came from that little nursery have lasted a lifetime and provided a very comfortable living for this old gardener. Keep your hands in the soil and you will be connected to the earth. As Martha would say, "That's a very good thing."


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