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Photograph by Raymond R. Rodriguez, Jr.; Stylists: Sharon Rodriguez & Nathan Ruiz.

Digging It

Garden within city limits can lead to a different kind of urban sprawl

By Richard von Busack

There's something in city folk that longs for the age-old rhythms of planting, harvesting, planting, famine, planting, locust invasion, planting, having the local squires ride over your cabbages during a fox hunt, planting and, finally, dying.

What else can explain the hapless multitudes who tear into their backyards without prompting, who rototill, spray, set up sprinkler systems, lay sod. Here, I'm addressing the kind of people I've known in 20 years of bumming around Northern California--those who have finally picked up an actual house: a battered rental property run by an ancient old lady they see once every two years. Once upon a time, Mrs. Krampackski's bungalow was young and fresh, newly carved out of the pear orchards by the developers. She went to OSH and bought two things: rose bushes and ivy. Why? Ivy and roses looked English.

Now, it's 2003, and she's on a walker--and you're her tenant. And now, the backyard consists of dried mud; maybe a motley carpet of ex-grass (95 percent Bermuda) covers it. A tangle of blackberry vines occupies one corner, courtesy of the local birds, which eat blackberries and leave fertilized seeds in their wake, sometimes on your car. Mostly what you have though, is hard dirt, too hard to plow, too soft to skateboard on. And beyond lies an Amazonian jungle of ivy, muscling up against a wall of rose bushes, still alive, but deeply afflicted with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Facing this rented wasteland, beer in hand, you wonder if anything can be done. Look at that apron of rammed earth, that forlorn patch of weed-covered waste not tilled since God left Chicago. Observe the cracked terra-cotta pots, full of dried weeds, littered with cigarette butts from the last barbecue. Maybe a once-jolly garden gnome or lawn burro, denuded of every fragment of paint, slowly sinks from sight.

You feel like the novice described by Mark Twain in his 1870 essay "How I Edited an Agricultural Journal." Such a novice can't tell a watermelon tree from a peach vine: "You do not seem to know the first rudiments of agriculture. You speak of a furrow and a harrow as being the same thing; you talk of the molting season for cows; and you recommend the domestication of the polecat on account of its playfulness and its excellence as a ratter."

Thick As a Brick

This spring, take some gardening tips from the most shiftless agriculturist since scurvy old Lurvy, the dead-on-his feet hired-hand in Charlotte's Web. You, too, can garden--even if you've really done nothing so far but blearily stare out at the landscape and mutter, "Didn't they, like, used to have some farms out here or something?"

That soil, that rocklike polluted soil, must be weeded and scratched up. The good news is that you don't have to weed it all or scratch every bit of it up. Instead, let's do what the pioneers did. Pull up enough weeds to open a patch to plant in; let nature have its way with the rest of the yard.

Once you get results, you can barber the remainder of the weeds. Or not. Some people, remembering the rules of jungle warfare, advise defoliating the whole yard on the grounds that bugs and seeds might hide in the weeds and conduct raids at night. Could be, but we're just getting started here. We can't worry about everything.

What you need to do is put a bed sheet down in the trunk of the car and go to a nursery or garden supply store and buy some bags of high-class dirt. I recommend buying dirt in a bag, shamefully stupid as that sounds. They call it "compost"--not steer or chicken fertilizer--and it sells for about $3-$5 a bag. Three or four bags are enough to start. Now, clear a few square yards of weeds and dump the compost on top of the ground. A fine day's work. Come back next week.

If you don't like the idea of buying something as basic as dirt, there are plenty of home-composting programs. These quick, free classes explain how to make your own, how to keep out the rats and the bugs, how to keep the pile free of meat and cheese (old pizza can't be composted, a sad fact of life). On April 26, the Guadalupe Gardens in downtown San Jose will host one such compost information fest. The Spring in Guadalupe Festival and Plant Sale (www.grpg.org) will feature compost giveaways and tomato sales. You, too, will discover that compost is more interesting than many major motion pictures.

The Last Farmer in Willow Glen

Tom Liggett will be one of the guests at the Guadalupe Gardens spring opener. He is a gardener of great force. I called him up, and this is the message I got back, in, like, an instant: "I've spent a lifetime teaching the rankest of amateurs how to grow things easily. It is my life. When I say rankest, I don't mean that as a value judgment. These are the people I appeal to, not the experts. The amateur is the future of all pursuits."

Now, here's the kind of guy who could tame the back 40.

"I've spent my life demystifying roses," Liggett said briskly. "That's the way I started. I was raised in this valley, went to Vietnam, came back, single-parented two children, never owned a place, scrounged backyards from friends and empty lots to garden in. Now I own two properties, and I'm the last farmer in Willow Glen."

Liggett, who used to run Liggett's Rose Nursery, farms the old Willow Glen Horse Yards. This year, he's making that patch a demonstration garden for 85 varieties of antique muskmelons and cantaloupes. (Agribusiness has resulted in the narrowing of fruit and vegetable types to a few supermarket-friendly varieties. As a result, gardeners around the world are trying to bring back "heirloom" varieties. These are fully flavored varieties found at farmers markets and the fancier natural food stores.)

Liggett helped found the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden at Columbus Park, a leading repository for old roses. "Three things you have to know about it," he told me. "It only cost $3,000 to start, and it's all volunteer run, and it's never been sprayed, not even once. We're debunking the garden prima donna here. That's why I'm at such loggerheads with the American Rose Society."

Haw, roses, I muttered. Like I'm going to tell first-time gardeners to grow roses. Roses, indeed. Prune 'em with a shovel, my friend Dee said. They call them climbers, but they're really sprawlers, an unsightly spray of rust-infested low-income housing for aphids. A sharp-thorned tangle and as bad as blackberries, she says. But no, I think--you don't hate yourself for taking a machete to blackberries like you do to roses.

"A rose is as easy as anything else to grow," Liggett insisted, although he allowed there was a wrong way to proceed. "Let's say Barbie goes for the master's degree. She meets Ken in grad school; they have their kid. Barbie's at OSH, and maybe she sees Martha Stewart's smiling face on a magazine telling her to go get those Boston roses. Well, they grow 6 feet. They get mildew. Her kid wanders into 'em and scratches his cornea. She pulls the roses up, and now the local rose society has lost a volunteer because of this bullshit hype. The worst part of it is she goes to Starbucks and says, 'I just can't grow roses.' But the problem is that she was sold a load of hooey: Boston roses don't grow here like they do there. In Boston it freezes every year, and out here they grow to 6 feet."

What about flowers? Something big and bold and showy, like sunflowers? "Great for kids," Liggett noted. "We get instant results. They're bold and trouble-free, and nothing but a streetcar can knock them down. I like impatiens, but Annie from Annie's Annuals calls 'em 'gas station plants.'"

Annie Hayes should receive the Nobel Prize for gardening. She's a wholesale gardener (www.anniesannuals.com) who runs a Richmond nursery that distributes Mediterranean-climate and dry-garden heirloom plants from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz. Boutique garden stores carry her plants, with photos and care instructions. One popular item is a striped marigold that, judging by the instructions, could be successfully tended by an easily distracted 6-year-old.

A Fool and His Tools

Liggett recommends some other plants, but the question of tools should be raised. Take the Shao-lin Temple claw. They call it a cultivator, but in Hong Kong movies they use this kind of thing to perform heart surgery on villains. It's a wicked-looking instrument with three sharp prongs. Next to the shovel, it is the most valuable of all garden tools. It can be used to rip open bags of compost; it can itch up weeds and collect ivy (by the "spaghetti" method of winding the vines around its tines and pulling hard). If you have no pet polecat, you can brain the toolshed rats with it, too.

The entire weed spectrum fears and dreads this tool. Part of the magic of the growing season is that every weed has its heyday. First comes the yellow-flowered oxalis (or "Fool's Daffodil"), pretty and easy to kill; then the spurge (or "Idiot's Parsley"), which you can pull and pull and pull some more; and, finally, the bindweed (or "Pinhead's Morning Glory"), which will tie your garden in knots. Perhaps you also have a few wickedly sharp thistles that will penetrate garden gloves as if they were gauze. The Shao-lin Temple claw deals with all of them alike, except for the savage Himalayan blackberry ("Those thorns that can pierce you to the bone," Liggett observed).

Check out the patch of composted soil a week later. Little insignificant weeds will grow through the compost, but you can itch them up with the claw. Weeds really hate nitrogen, and putting that nitrogen-laden compost down baffles them.

Now get a shovel (be sure to read the instructions before use!) and start chopping up the compost and the hardened soil below it. After this process, the soil looks like boulder-sized lumps covered with a fine layer of compost. At this point, I advise bursting another bag of compost over the whole lumpy mess. Wait another day.

At this point, you can read seed catalogs, if you enjoy reading lies. Some of the tomatoes you'll be growing will be in there, pornographically arrayed with names like Big Boy and Early Girl. Farm smut. The chances of the Highly Unsuccessful Gardener growing something from seed are, like, nil, but dream away while the organic process is taking place in your soon to be green yard.

Porn aside, tomatoes are 75 percent of the purpose of this whole exercise--homegrown tomatoes are one of those few things in this life about which only good can be said. Tomatoes are, I insist, the perfect place to start home gardening.

If you live in a cool, damp coastal microclimate with heavy fog in the morning and evening, your chances of growing big, fat tomatoes are poor. The Early Girl and the San Francisco Fog are a great breed for cool weather climates, but you can also have success with the yellow ones (the Sungold pear tomato is a lucky variety). You--even it you've only got a pot of dirt on a balcony--should have success with cherry tomatoes and those little tomatoes that looks like Christmas lights.

If your microclimate bakes in the summer, with long spells of 80-degree weather--the big, fat porno-tomatoes like brandywines, beefsteaks and oxhearts can be yours.

Every September, the University of California Bay Area Research and Extension Center (BAREC) shows off its results in rekindling the world's less-famous tomatoes. In the fall, the center boasts a poetic array of tomatoes, ranging in color from almost white to scarlet and in size from softball to marble.

In the spring, most of the local farmers markets sell seedling heirloom tomatoes, and even the larger gardening supply stores stock the less common varieties. But the commercially sold kind that say VFN on the labels are good to start with since they resist some of the more common tomato-hating buggers in the soil. Liggett recommends the Black Krim heirloom as an instant classic, but says the Early Girl is the easiest to grow in this climate.

Dump in more compost as you work, and now that you've got the hang of it, dig deep. Excavate the proverbial $5 hole for the $1 plant. Kung fu the lumps to pieces with the Shao-lin Temple claw and mash in compost. Soon you should have a small patch of some relatively moist, relatively tillable dirt, about the diameter of an automobile tire.

Take the plant out of the plastic pot by turning it upside down (put the stem between your fingers, supporting the dirt around the plant with your hand). Clip the little stems off from the bottom, all the way up its neck, leaving a flourish of leaves on top, and bury about 75 percent of the plant underground.

Place it in the hollow of ground a mixture of fill dirt and compost mix, padding it down firmly but insistently, while chanting, "Oh, sacred Gaia, accept my tomato plant. Forgive my injury to thy holy concretelike adobe and thy beautiful children, the weeds." Make sure none of the cut stems are above ground level. Soak the ground gently with about 2 gallons of water poured very slowly around the base of the plant, not on the leaves.

The tomato, like the humans that eat it, is naturally inclined to sprawl. That's why people pay for tomato cages to support the plants. But the secret is, you can let it sprawl on the ground if you want (a tomato rind is too thick for the ants and earwigs to break through). Really hot weather may cause the tomatoes to bake and split on the ground, though. Still, If you use a too-small tomato cage, the vines will break through and hit the ground anyway. Somehow, as is in the case with the vigorous plants, all is forgiven.

During the first week of its new life in your paradise, water it every day. Then, in the second week, water it three times. You're trying to get it used to things around your place--plus, heavily watered tomatoes taste like water. You should be able look at a plant and tell it needs watering from droopiness; watering in the morning is the best, particularly if a serious heat wave is forecast. Don't water the leaves! Mound some compost around the base of the plant. This mulching holds the leaves at bay and keeps the water in the soil.

If you want your tomatoes to feed your soul, you've got to feed theirs. My favorite tomato food is bat guano. It's expensive: $8 for a lunch-bag's worth. Unlike all other animal-waste fertilizers, you can apply it straight to the base of the plant without fear of burning the roots. A couple of tablespoons per plant deposited by the stem does the job. Tomatoes love this stuff; strawberries grow big leaves like a palmetto plant. On this diet, I've had tomatoes--not good tomatoes, but tomatoes--last into January. Once you've endured the shame of buying dirt in a bag, buying bat dung in a bag is easy to survive.

Creature Feature

Now your backyard looks like weeds with some cleared-out spaces with little plants growing in them. That is, unless the snails and the earwigs ate everything, which is entirely possible. Neither snails nor earwigs are local bugs; neither has a nervous system to speak of; you can do as you please with them and never suffer karmic consequences. Toss snails high into the air, into the street or fling them at the neighborhood brats or passing cars. Crunch them under your Converse with wild abandon.

If you're less easily grossed out, leave a bowl of beer out for them, just as a wise man leaves bowls of milk out for the leprechauns. The beer bowl should be sunken, like a Jacuzzi, level to the ground. Snails crawl in for a drink and never come out. Good for man or beast. Change the disgusting slush once a week. You'll also catch slugs in your beer traps, and they eat tomatoes, too. Slugs are native bugs, but as my pal Phil's dad always said, "Fly with the crows, get shot down with the crows." (Come to think of it, I think Phil's dad was warning him about me.)

Other bugs that may attack your plants are aphids and whiteflies. Whiteflies, which fly up in a powdery cloud when you touch the leaves of a plant, vampirize the plant's juices. Aphids do the same and can be seen crawling on stems. To retard them, go get a pint-sized spray bottle and put a squirt of dish-washing liquid into it (not the anti-bacterial kind, just regular soap). Top the bottle off with water, and in the morning, spray the tops and bottoms of leaves and stems. This is the only time you want to water the leaves of your plants. Repeat every three days for about a week. That should cool them off. Chances are, the aphids and whiteflies will bail out for some other plant that doesn't taste like soap.

Once you've accomplished all this, your garden will grow with simple maintenance, which is just a matter of checking on your plants every few days. Extra watering is in order when the heat waves come. Staking up branches that become long and heavy will keep them from breaking and losing all their glorious fruit.

If a bug with weapons of mass destruction shows up--such as the dreaded tomato hornworm--run, don't walk, to the nearest nursery and get specialized help.

Harvest your ripe tomatoes warm in the late afternoon and serve them at room temperature. Life will seem incredibly good.

In addition to these joys, it's worth pointing out that the earthiness of even the most amateur of gardeners is highly attractive to mates. The provider thing. Plus planting things is utterly satisfying on a psychological basis; it makes the most idle or unemployed person feel like they've done some honest work.

How many times have I sat out there, staring at the progress of plants when everything else that needed my personal attention was basically going to hell? A lot, and I have never regretted it. Gardening will outlast the wavering of the economy, climactic change, and war. And if gardening is just a trend, it will be the last one.


The Real Dirt: More tips from the lips of Master Gardener Tom Liggett.

'How I Edited an Agricultural Journal': More excerpts from Mark Twain's 1870 essay.

Springing Up: A guide of green-thumb websites, shows, plant sales, classes and nurseries.


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From the April 16-23, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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