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[whitespace] 'From the Ground Up'
From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden
By Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books; $18.95; cloth

The Art Of Planting

Flowers and people both blossomed in Amy Stewart's Santa Cruz garden

By C. Kevin Smith

A GARDEN is a curious thing. It brings one in contact with the elemental sources of nature, yet its shape--all those tidy, color-coordinated rows--reflects a purely human design.

In her first book, From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden, author Amy Stewart describes with humorous flair the creation, in a small Santa Cruz backyard, of a garden that at times acts like both wise teacher and unruly child. Stewart is eager to grow things in her new home--she and her husband moved to California after completing graduate school in their native Texas--and her book is a witty, instructive memoir of her encounters with the pleasures and pitfalls of starting a new garden from scratch. It is also an insightful portrait of Santa Cruz.

As any green thumb will attest, there are many stages to gardening, and From the Ground Up features several chapters that function as separate narratives within the larger story of how a garden comes into being and is sustained. Stewart is not afraid to show herself in a less-than-flattering light, and many of these chapters begin in a mood of scornful impatience as she rushes toward her goal of planting a particular flower or vegetable or ridding her yard of a particular pest or weed. But invariably the world of her garden has its own agenda, and many chapters end with a gentler understanding of things.

Several chapters detail the human interactions that gardening affords. Family, friends, tourists, neighbors, all pass through her garden and seem to be better for it. One chapter entitled "Manual Labor" reminds us of the social value of gardening, as a community activity that can replace blight with beauty and forge fresh respect for those who earn their keep with the hard work of their hands.

Stewart organizes her book so that readers can learn from her mistakes. There are many useful sections here for both the novice and the experienced gardener, including several recipes. Yet Stewart, who usually ignores the advice contained in the gardening books she consults, also shows us the value of figuring things out for ourselves, of making it up as we go along.

Each garden reflects the personality of its gardener, and Stewart's is no exception. She dislikes the formal garden she visits in British Columbia, wanting to cultivate something that appears more wild and unkempt. For this reason she comes to disdain house plants and rose bushes. Manure and its myriad benefits inspire some of her keenest enthusiasm--we learn that chicken manure is "lighter in color, fluffier, milder" than that of cows--though despite her way with words some readers may never come to share her passion for worm excrement.

To a nongardener, some of the hierarchies associated with gardening may appear baffling. Outside my study window is a hillside covered in a lush carpet of green that in early spring sports tender yellow flowers. I had often wondered what this pretty plant was, and now I know: It's a weed, the dreaded yellow oxalis, hated scourge of gardeners. Yet still I find it beautiful.

Whatever our experience with gardening--and this engaging book will no doubt inspire many to try their hand at a first garden--it is hard not to see the soil as an extension of our own hopes and fears.

"I wanted full credit for whatever this garden turned out to be," Stewart writes, and by the end of the book, when it is time for her to leave this garden and move on, one understands her reluctance to let go. Stewart's garden has become a tribute to her determination, creativity and skill. It has also become a place marked by the passage of time: It's in her garden where she buries a beloved pet. So it is not surprising when she declares that, after all the time, money and energy spent, "it would be foolish to simply abandon" her garden. She makes plans to uproot several of her plants in order to replant them hundreds of miles away. Yet surely what matters most about Stewart's first garden is not a particular flower or tree but the art of planting she has discovered and shared here in this charming, informative memoir.

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From the February 21-28, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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