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Impulse Gardening

Melon scab, powdery mildew and other lessons of the greenhorn green thumb

By Jill Koenigsdorf

Two years ago, my friend Christina packed up her house and three daughters in Berkeley and moved to the border of Denmark so that her husband could be closer to his mother. For the first time in her life, Christina found herself with a yard--not just a postage-stamp yard, but actual acreage, which in the right hands could be transformed into gardens.

In previous years, Christina and I had shared a slew of urban gardening experiences, the most memorable of which was the miraculous vine that had forced itself through a crack in the pavement serving as our backyard in the Mission. We watered that vine, shaking our heads and reverently murmuring about "the will to live" as we did so. The vine did its part, growing as tall as some ever-lengthening cobra we were charming out of a basket. It never produced a flower or fruit, but reached a height of seven-and-a-half feet before expiring one night during a cold snap.

There were the window boxes of our group house in Oakland that provided crunchy, green cherry tomatoes, which we served with pride in salads, and those flavorless root-bound herbs that we snipped from decorative little pots. But none of this prepared either of us for the wilds of real landscape.

I have lived in Sonoma for seven years on one-third of an acre that, with each passing season, has come to reflect my imprint like a comfy shoe. But just as with breaking in a new pair of shoes, there are calluses and limping forward and a certain amount of teeth-gritting involved before achieving a sweet fit. When I arrived, I was seduced by several established lilac bushes, an actual pomegranate tree and what I saw as endless potential. I imagined long tables outdoors like in French films, laden with the bounty of my garden, dear friends laughing while reaching lustily for another piece of my homemade fig bread topped with my freshly picked arugula.

What did I know then of powdery mildew or potato blight? Of earwigs or canker worms? Slugs or snails or those birds, all of them, who wait until a pea shoot or lettuce sprout is just right to pluck from the soil and into their greedy beaks like it was planted there for them? How could I have imagined aphids so dense a rosebud might look green and strangely furry, or those voracious insects that overnight make the leaves of Japanese eggplant look sheer as a lace curtain? I didn't know a gopher from a hole in the ground.

I only envisioned vegetable beds sagging under the weight of heirloom tomatoes and dazzling red strawberries the size of golf balls. I foolishly predicted that empty trellises would soon be perfuming the air with each toss of their sweet-pea-tendrilled manes. The blind instinct of my green beans would soon see them gripping the strings I had hung above each seed and climbing leafily upward. In no time, I would transform this raw piece of land into a spectacle of profusion. Oh, innocence! Thy name is gardener!

The first thing I did was to rent a rototiller and create "patches," in a willy-nilly fashion, all over the property. It was a good sweaty task, with the immediate gratification of visible results--as opposed to planting--and I was unconcerned with such banalities as nearby water sources or the proximity to large root systems of the land I was churning. (Let me stress here, if it is not already clear, that I am of the full-steam-ahead school of gardening, an easy target for such seasoned villains as crab grass or blackberry vine.)

With uncanny acuity, I noted right off the bat that the soil in Sonoma was clearly more at home on a potter's wheel than nurturing new seedlings. I began to compost in hopes of bringing out the soil's inner loam. I spent a small fortune on "starters," those flowers and vegetables that the nurseries had somehow managed to nurse to three-leafed maturity in six-packs. By the end of my first summer, I realized that each lemon cucumber I was harvesting from my own precious vegetable bed had cost me approximately $6.

By year two, I had acquired a small degree of savvy. I knew which seedlings the birds adored (basil, lettuce, sunflower seeds) and I put empty strawberry containers over the tender new sprouts to cage them in. Ha ha! But from the kitchen window, I could see jays hop over to my "cages," cock a head and then fling the green plastic aside like a giant tossing a small boulder from his path. I placed stones on top to weight the cartons down. Same story. Perhaps I was confusing the birds by setting up a birdfeeder and bath on the property?

It was then that I discovered bird netting, a wonderful invention that lets water and sun in but discourages the winged ones. Once I got the bird and pest situation under control, I realized I might have had something of a green thumb: I had enough cukes to pickle, enough figs and tomatoes to dry, strawberries to freeze and zucchinis that seemed to double in size overnight, the Zeppelin-sized ones donated to a neighbor's pet tortoises.

Flowers were another story. I had the veggies in a box on a drip system, but I bought flower seeds like Imelda Marcos bought shoes, greedily and in a state of sublime agitation. I was giddy with their names: "Stained Glass Salpiglossis," "Mountain Garland Clarkia," "Starlight Echinacea" ("attracts butterflies!"). There is something almost pornographic about the glossy bulb catalogues that arrive in my mailbox in late summer, and I looked forward to pouring over them, dog-earing the pages of those I wanted to order, my imagination soaring high above the boundaries of my wallet.

I concerned myself not with seed pack directions, nor cautions such as "prefers fluffy, well-drained soil," nor planting times, preferring instead to focus on the profusion, the color, the fragrance that awaited. With seeds, it is easy to be optimistic: for $3, right inside this packet, I have the potential for a hundred flowers! Surely a few of these will make it into bloom! Alas, the odds are not so favorable.

Time mends all wounds, and by the third year I had discovered, not through any patience of my own, that seeds I had planted years before could surprise me by suddenly flowering, just like that. Despite delayed plantings or premature plantings or adobe-like soil or too much sun or too much shade, an apricot digitalis would suddenly poke up right next to some long-forgotten shaggy zinnia. I always felt a special affection for these flowers, as they were going to establish themselves despite towering odds, from seed no less. Plus, I appreciate anything low-maintenance.

The years have also proven that the scents of the garden can transport you instantly to a remembered time or place. Arm brushing against the fuzz on a tomato vine in the summer heat: Lake Lotawana, Mo., Fourth of July barbecue, must have been 12. My father slicing Big Boys into discs the size of hockey pucks, salting and peppering them right in my hands. Bearded iris in all their feather-boa'd glory unfurling with that unique musky smell: I am five? Sitting at Mom's feet, she with pink curlers in her hair, handing wet clothes from a basket to clip on the line and the iris are all around us. Happy.

Already established plants can be traded and passed around like bubble-gum cards. As I make the watering tour, I note that the sultanas thrust upon me by an 87-year-old Berkeley friend who thought she didn't have long to live are in full bloom, as is she. A tiny piece broken off of some mammoth succulent years ago from a friend's yard in Chico is now bursting out of its chipped old pot on my back porch.

"My neighbor just gave me some narcissus bulbs," Christina tells me over the phone. "Can't I just plant them now?"

I am appalled at the school-marmish, finger-wagging tone of my response. "Sure," I say crisply, "if you want them to rot in the ground. Put them in the basement and plant them in October."

Christina's first winter in Denmark was very hard for her. Locals told her to break a branch off an apple tree in the fall and bring it inside and put it in a vase of water. "Looking at its small sprouts will give you hope when it's been gray and icy for three months. It will remind you of the sun," they told her.

She missed California desperately at first, but has the copious lilacs and dogwood and peonies that are the rewards of a climate with four distinct seasons. And now she knows exactly the right time to plant a hundred daffodils, which will smile upon her next spring. So, almost, do I.

Somehow, seven years have flown by. The peach pit I put in a flower pot years ago just to see what would happen is now a sapling six feet tall and bending with a fair amount of peaches. I have enough olives to take part in the local community press and am pouring some of "my" oil on some splatter-painted lettuce variety I grew called speckled Amish butterhead, tossing it along with an orange-tinted vinegar I made from nasturtium flowers. The pomegranate tree is alive with the giddy industry of bees, and I have even learned to plant some greens for the birds alongside the protected ones. If everything goes well, I should have some Brandywine tomatoes and elephant garlic and Genovese basil to add to these salads any day now.

Christina called yesterday. She says she's looking out on another miraculous vine, but this one has her first crop of potatoes growing underneath.

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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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