Yes, I Live Here: Gardener’s lament

The small patch of my backyard bordering a convenience mart and gas station brought challenge and joy. In that bit of land –– filled with styrofoam cup shards, all the tiny corners of M&M packs, the little cellophane tops from god knows what, bits of tin foil, plastic straws, and more cigarette butts than my mind can tally or comprehend –– I scratched and sowed flower seed.

Well actually, I strew. There was no way I was going to touch the years of potato chip bags, gas receipts, plastics of unknown origin and the occasional used diaper. It was quite geological. Time and pressure produced a history that I could not bring myself to breach.

So, strew seeds, tend and water I did, with a vigilance known as overcomer’s zeal. With my diligent watch for evidence of germination, I imagined that actual plants, and then someday flowers, might triumph to beautify this small plot and, in my loftiest ambitions, inspire the garbage-tossing patrons of the gas station to hold that trash or cigarette butt and head for the nearest bin rather than let the wind casually take it, cross the alleyway and lash itself to my tangle of weeds.

I saw some emergent bits of green, tiny, round leaves, in that exact same arc that my strewing arm had wildly swung, handfuls of seeds launched. I dragged recent cuttings from around front to serve as mulch to hold some moisture in this edge-of-a-parking-lot, dry, pulverized, dusty, kind of concrete-colored soil, at least that would help keep what questionable soil that was there in place until my seeds came rejoicing through. I watered, watched and waited, happy in my obsession.

Tiny green bits inched through and I answered back with more watering, feeling budding triumph. Then, there were two days with showers back to back and an explosion of growth was born. On Father’s Day, in stunned silence, on my haunches in the usual close examination squat, the phenomenal growth over a few short days bowled me over. It’s what happens in the desert, some bit of rain and plants shoot up inches in a day. Mid-internal celebration, something caught me up –– flowers in the desert don’t shoot up practically overnight; these were weeds. Now, straight up with the rain and practically lush, the harsh fact dawned: I had been duped. Over-enthusiastic people fall for common plant-world pranks. The high desert howls with laughter. Back on my heels, head down, in recognition of my folly, the tears and laughter arrived together.

And then, in that painful, ridiculous moment, my father’s presence appeared at my shoulder, chiding me for watering weeds with such abandon, so delighted with this discovery, so tease-worthy. It’s exactly the sort of endeavor that would have been my entrance into his lexicon of ribbing that would never die. He would have said to my nieces or great aunts or visiting friends, “Hey, let’s call Mary Jane and see if she’s watered her weeds yet today!”

He had a way of turning the worst-seeming failure or painful misstep into not something to be ashamed of, rather something to be lauded for, as he found it entertaining and would therefore regale others with his delight. Somehow his teasing was never cruel, never barbed, just a lighthearted take on what the world can deliver unexpectedly. He made it all better.

My dad sponsored a baseball team made up of coaches and firefighters and cops from our small town in Kansas when I was kid. My summers were in large part lived in the back of a station wagon headed to a sandlot ball field in a smaller town, a picnic basket packed and served up by my mom at some point during the excursion. There was high dust and very long, boring stretches. My father was occasionally thrown out by the umpire for arguing balls and strikes, and then would continue to heckle from under the bleachers, much to my mother’s Presbyterian consternation. Yet, turning to my father’s memory for the solace I seek, binding the wounds of my gardening mishaps, in some way makes no sense. Once, during high school, I came home on a hot summer day to find him mowing the yard in a suit, tie and wingtips. That, to my knowledge, was the extent of his connection to the plant world.

It’s been a few years on since the gardening experiment by the gas station, where eventually Mexican sunflowers transformed that bit of alley. I watched as people leapt out of cars to collect seeds, and do hope more towering plants are entertaining monarch butterflies in new locales along their migration path. More recently I began again in another yard in the high desert, filled with a different collection of nasty and questionable contents right down to bits of colorful faded plastic, broken glass and a luxurious fence-to-fence blanket of impressive goatheads.

The first year I never spent less than thirty minutes a day pulling goatheads from the dry earth. I was intrepid and made progress. The second year a dark green, very flat to the ground plant appeared to my delight, as the ground cover I had dreamed must exist out here. Several weeks on, teeny tiny prickers appeared on what I had thought was my savior plant, and by this time, to my horror, covered all the parts liberated from goatheads. These new plants have an even finer point, far more difficult to extract, easier to break off and thus prolong the suffering. I have been no less vigilant with these mean-spirited plants, and yet they appear once again, just to break my spirit apparently.

In this now much-fussed-over and still downtrodden yard, I have spent more than I care to share on precious native seeds, plus arduously-collected wildflower seeds, carefully planted, tended and watered with absolutely abysmal results. The sunflowers that sprouted, the one flower success last year, were almost immediately flattened by my overly large puppy flopping down where the soil was wet and cool. There are three raised beds, built by a previous tenant, in a part of the yard the puppy cannot breach. I planted six varieties of tomatoes, my most passionate, lifelong love. As a kid I would dial random numbers in the phone book and say, “Everything good is made from tomatoes,” and hang up.

So incessant bragging to myself about the high germination rate with these six varieties of tomatoes turned abruptly into my newest plant nightmare when I saw the first flower and realized I’d never seen a white tomato flower. The “tomatoes” were Oak Leaf Datura, every single part of the plant toxic to mammals. In my defense, several kind people did say they looked like tomato leaves, so I was not alone, and yet I was inconsolable.

That first time I was fooled by desert plants landed in my heart equal parts sad and funny. This time I was just discouraged. I’d been watering toxic plants masquerading as tomatoes. How could I be so ignorant? How could they form such a perfect floating carpet in my raised beds? Were birds involved in this fiasco? What I wouldn’t give to once more feel my father’s presence by my side, chiding me back to seeing the humor in my failed endeavor, being the cause of his delight.

On Father’s Day, my chastised self pulled up the datura and to my absolute wonderment discovered a few tiny, beleaguered tomato plants barely surviving under their canopy. I spent the day rearranging the limp plants and making them comfortable. After praising the surviving tomatoes, I sat on the edge of the raised bed to take in this new development and spied some pea pods on two struggling plants that I thought the heat had claimed because they were planted far too late. I again felt my dad’s presence as I happily feasted on perfect pea pods and celebrated my one victory. My spirit soared.

After various stints working on an organic wheat farm in eastern Montana, a collection of giant cacti in my corporate office in San Francisco, a vegetable farm on Martha’s Vineyard, and a big garden plot plus abundant flowers back East, I had mistakenly thought I was sort of good at this, and maybe even above average. The desert has shown me the folly of my thinking, and also that I am often an unmitigated outright failure. Right now I have two (TWO!!) tomato plants and two volunteer sunflowers plus the humility that comes from seeing bare earth where many varieties of plants were supposed to be, plus the knowledge it was not for lack of trying. This may be my worst year yet. People around me have gardens that are thriving, producing with such an abundance they share. It’s painful and wonderful, for without them I would not have local organic greens and yet what the hell? I ask myself.

Maybe it’s actually my father’s determination that I long to conjure at this point. At 50, his doctor told him to start playing golf to get some exercise. Having never joined the country club due to the non-admittance of Jews and Blacks, that fell on deaf ears. Then one day, driving by the high school, he saw something happening in the field, pulled over and found an Old Masters track meet in progress. He signed up on the spot and ran in his suit, tie and street shoes. Sometime later when I was living in Palo Alto, I saw him compete in a track meet in Southern California. I took a photograph of him running the hurdles and went back to my rooftop vegetable garden; he went home to Kansas without further ado. It wasn’t until after his death I discovered from newspaper clippings he actually became the National Decathlon Champion for over 50, at the age of 55.

So maybe, just maybe, I can pull up my socks, channel some of his energy, soldier on, and head back out into the yard, seeds in hand. Perhaps it’s time to get over my aversion to row cover and irrigation, things never needed when I lived where it rained with great regularity, and accept the desert.

Maybe the native grass hopefully germinating under the pine needle mulch out my back door with a set of bed springs from the dump on top to keep my puppy from his favorite pastime of digging up anything I’ve planted, will actually come up. And this Father’s Day, whether I feel his presence again or not, I will tell anyone who asks, that yes, I’ve watered my weeds today.