The Dry Garden: A fond farewell


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There may be something more painful than letting go of a garden built from scratch and largely by hand, but I haven’t experienced it. Yet after 12 years in the only home I have known in Los Angeles, it’s time to move. The young oaks, toyon, ceanothuses, sages and fruit trees will need to ingratiate themselves to the new owners, or die. Signs painted by local schoolchildren will stay. My father’s ashes along with the graves of three beloved dogs cannot come with me. They are all bound up in the plants.

Yet handing over the garden isn’t difficult because of sacred dust. It’s the living that haunt me. It’s unexpectedly intense affection for the defiantly stray cat that I have taken to feeding. It’s hoping that the mourning doves that I have fed and supplied with fresh water every day since July 1998 find new food and new water. (How I regret ever having enticed them.) It’s because there’s never a good moment to leave a garden. A garden is never finished.


The Carolina cherry hedge planted when I didn’t know better needs removing to make way for more coffeeberry successors, which were put in nearby last year in a ruffled, irregular fashion so they would never require the buzzing of hedge trimmers.

I still haven’t moved the agaves from the parkway, where they may one day impale someone.

The sycamore that came over in a wind storm and was hastily reseated is listing and needs moving or cutting down.

No matter how much I weed, the disastrous decision to plant a passion vine hasn’t been undone.

Will the new owners understand that as the oaks grow in, the front yard will become a shade garden? I’ve pulled the last plants of a spectacular early sweep of lavender, then divided and spread irises in their stead as a parting hint.

Or will the new owners rip out the garden and replace it with lawn?

‘You can’t sell to the loud guy,’ my neighbor Wally warned after an open house. Evidently the loud guy was so loud that Wally heard him through the fence bragging about how he could ‘rip all this out.’

I didn’t sell to the loud guy, or to a woman whose local friend began gossiping about what a shame it was that my garden was doomed. I sold to people whom the real estate agent said wanted it for the garden.

In the now agonizing interim between accepting their offer and the approaching move date, I have been clearing and pruning. All the better to see some pretty impressive screw-ups.

The mistakes run the gamut: I used photinia hedge to conceal the compost bin because the plants were easy to buy from conventional retailers. But photinia leaves burn up in heat. I should have driven to Sun Valley to buy the far more beautiful and better-adapted native toyon from the Theodore Payne Foundation.

My solution to impulse purchases was to jam all the plants in one bed, as if mismatching them in a leftover corner was somehow a plan. Needless to say, oregano next to buckwheat fell far short of ideal for either my pasta or the local butterflies.

I can still remember the bankrupt moment that I decided to ignore clearly stated space requirements on a plant tag and put in a large-growing species of galvezia less than a foot from a sidewalk. When removing it recently, I found growing under it Mexican feather grass, another mistake, this time because of its invasiveness.

That admitted, using the low-growing manzanita cultivar John Dourley as an evergreen anchor in a herb garden was either a good idea or happy accident. The ceanothus Centennial and Yankee Point along the front walk were glorious successes, the kind that can sell home-buyers on a native garden.

Work to make the place comprehensible will I hope help the new owners, but this last minute push also feels futile and frustrating. It’s not ready! Which leads to the painful core about leaving a work in progress. It’s never ready. Leaving a garden is like leaving the future.

We are never more optimistic than when planting a tree that will be fullest with bushtits and cast its most generous shadow when we’re dead, but it’s a compelling activity in life to follow the shade mark. Gardening isn’t seeing what’s there, it’s about seeing around corners, sometimes decades at a time. It’s why, to my mind, heavily irrigated yards that push fast growth for quick green fill then keep watering and cutting aren’t gardens. They’re outdoor cynicism.

In the final push, I have completed a few long-delayed chores, things I should have done years ago but didn’t, such as giving the rain water banking system in the backyard a new gutter feed. This leads me to conclude that while gardening is futuristic, a key component is procrastination.

One of my last acts will be raking out wildflower seedlings. It’s clear that the new owners cannot be expected to do the kind of forensic winter weeding needed to protect poppies, lupines and clarkia from crab grass. If they want wildflowers, they will sow them. They can’t be expected to tend mine any more than they can be asked to feed the doves. That said, I’ve told them a stray cat comes with the place and am leaving food and a gallon of the superior brand of organic milk that Scruffy prefers.

My new home has half the house and twice the land of the old one. It’s in the foothills rather than the basin and has sandy loam instead of clay. I’m told that the sun rises there too. -- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here on Fridays.

Photos, top: Green’s house in 1998, left, and 2010, right. Credit: Emily Green.

Photo, bottom: The ceanothus Yankee Point. Credit: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times


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