Raising Consciousness

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One September evening several years ago when I was nine months' pregnant with my daughter, my husband found me outside in the twilight digging in a flower bed.

"Are you coming in soon?" Greg asked, peering into the night. "Should you even be doing that?"

"I'll be in soon," I promised him. "I'm fine. This isn't strenuous at all."

Of course I should be doing this, I thought, as I gently removed geraniums from cramped 4-inch pots and planted them to roam free in the warm soil.

Greg wasn't thinking of the plants. As a matter of fact, he often forgets them. He's a computer programmer, more attuned to the hardscape and hardware of life. Me, I'm the farmer in the house. When Greg looks out at our landscape, he sees where the house needs paint. I look outdoors and note where we need more plants.

At times he does notice plants when they bump into him. Then he doesn't have nice things to say. But overall, Greg is very easygoing about living with a farmer. He smells the plants I shove under his nose and helps me cart horse manure home. He even built me a potting bench, installed outdoor lighting so I could garden at night and made compost when I was pregnant with my twin sons three years ago.

What Greg doesn't quite understand is that plants are like children to farmers. They bustle at the backdoor for water and food and constantly invite the gardener to forget the chores and go outside and play. When they get nibbled by pests, such as cutworms or snails, they need extra TLC. And they constantly change, grow and even rebel. For the farmer in the house, plants are a consuming passion that transcends other interests.

"People can't understand my passion for growing roses, although they will spend hours and hours on their own hobbies," says Lillian Biesiadecki, a consulting rosarian for the American Rose Society and a horticultural judge who grows about 400 roses for exhibition in her Newport Beach garden.

"When people ask me what I do and I tell them I grow roses, their eyes glaze over and they don't know what to say."

Corona del Mar landscape architect Erik Katzmaier has received the same response.

"Some people don't know what I'm talking about when I mention plants and their soil requirements," he says. "I might as well be speaking a foreign language."

The way University of California master gardener Jill Dale sees it, she could have far worse vices than gardening.

"I could be out shopping for clothes all the time and maxing out my credit cards, but instead my passion is plants," says Dale, a self-professed fanatic.

"Although my husband is glad I enjoy gardening, I know he often wonders why I keep getting more plants. I think he'd like to know when I'll finally be done. What he doesn't realize is that there is no 'done' in gardening. The yard is an ever-changing canvas just waiting to be painted. Telling a gardener not to garden is like telling an artist not to paint."

Dale's co-workers are even more mystified than her husband by her passion for plants.

"I'm a nurse, and I was sitting outside of the hospital with some of my co-workers at lunch the other day when I noticed a nearby hibiscus," she says. "Gardeners know that these are notorious for attracting giant whiteflies, so I turned over a leaf to see if it had any. Everyone looked at me like I was completely daft."

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Non-farmers are often bewildered by farmers who gladly toil in the garden for hours every weekend.

"A lot of people think of gardening as a job. My neighbors often ask me, 'Why don't you get a gardener to do all the work?' They don't realize it's not a chore to me," says Dale.

Says Santa Ana gardener Marc LaFont: "Those of us for whom gardening is a passion wouldn't entrust our gardens to anyone else. For us, gardening is a hobby. I try to explain this by asking people this question: If you really enjoyed building model airplanes, would you consider hiring someone to come in and do it for you? It's not the finished product in gardening, it's the process."

Farmers come from all walks of life and backgrounds. And they spot one another quickly.

"When you meet another gardener, an instant rapport develops. It's like being in a secret club," says Carrie Teasdale, who gardens on 6,000-square feet in Fullerton.

"I've found that gardeners are kindred spirits. They know the joy of planting and seeing things grow. They're often honest, genuine people who aren't worried about social status. Many are generous and offer cuttings and seeds to whoever visits their gardens."

Farmers also tend to be enthusiastic, and their interest can rub off on family and friends.

"My wife and I have given up much of our backyard to Carrie's garden," says Robert Teasdale. "It's certainly been interesting seeing her grow the garden. I liken it to watching a pianist when you don't play yourself."

Farmers often create the most stares in the area of pest control.

"I think my neighbors think it's strange because I don't use chemicals in my garden," says Steve Kawaratani, owner of Laguna Nursery. "I use naturally occurring things like baking soda, and although I do use horticultural oils, I wash up after using them because I want my garden friendly and environmentally clean for my cats and the wild birds that constantly visit."

Though they may create stares, some farmers, such as Biesiadecki, enjoy the ruckus. Because she grows for exhibition, she sprays her roses on a monthly basis for pests and diseases.

"I go out at dawn to spray because there's no wind at that time. I put on what I call my 'Darth Vader' outfit, which includes a commercial respirator so I don't breathe the fumes. When I've finished and removed my outfit, I've had gardeners in other yards stop in their tracks and shake their heads in awe or puzzlement. I find that very amusing."

Allison Starcher also has unusual pest-control tactics, although she prefers to keep her activities restricted to the backyard, where neighbors can't watch. The plant and insect illustrator, who wrote and illustrated the book "Good Bugs for Your Garden" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1995, $10.95), likes to "go slugging" at night.

"I strap a camping flashlight onto my forehead, get a cup of beer and chopsticks and go out and pick slugs off my plants and plop them in the beer, where they sink and die," she says. "I've gotten 30 or 40 in one night."

Though they battle garden pests for the good of their plants, farmers know that ultimately they don't have control of their gardens.

"The garden is a living, breathing entity, and it changes from day to day," says Biesiadecki. "Working with nature is a very humbling experience. You might think for a moment that you have control over things, but ultimately you don't. And if you think you do, you're very arrogant in your assumption."

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Though you can orchestrate what goes on in the garden, ultimately it's not up to you, agrees Hortense Miller, whose Laguna garden is world-famous.

"The garden has its own independence, like a child. As it gets older, you can't simply take it by the hand and lead it. Plants will do what they want to do."

Gardeners such as LaFont know what Miller is talking about.

"One day a fig tree started growing out of nowhere," he says. "I think a bird dropped the seed. The tree grew and eventually changed that whole part of the yard into a shady area."

Not only do many farmers allow plants to develop naturally in the garden, they instinctively know when their plants are unhappy.

"Last year I planted potato vines in tubs and put them on my wooden deck, but they weren't happy in pots," says LaFont. "They seemed to get smaller and almost shrivel. It wasn't until I drilled holes in the wooden deck and planted them in the ground that they began to thrive, growing 10 feet in the last year."

In their way, plants talk to us and tell us what they need, and it's our job as gardeners to listen and respond, says Judith Handelsman, author of the book, "Growing Myself: A Spiritual Journey through Gardening" (Plume/Penguin USA, 1997, $10.95).

"Having a spiritual experience raising plants isn't something ditsy and should be taken out of the 'crazy lady' category," says Handelsman. "Plants are living beings the same as pets and people. They also need attention and love. When you care for plants, you cultivate a relationship and you learn about yourself and life and death in the process."

Handelsman says that a widespread disconnection from the natural world has caused many problems today, including feelings of isolation and that gardening is the answer.

"Gardening is a way for America to reconnect with nature and themselves," she says. "When you garden, you slow down and get back to what's real. I've seen gardening transform people's lives."

Alden Kelley, a Fullerton consulting arborist, says urbanization has caused a loss of connection with the natural world, which has negative consequences.

"People have a fundamental need to maintain a connection with other forms of life," he says. "When they aren't connected with plant life, it upsets their emotional equilibrium. We are usually uncomfortable expressing it in public, but plants are more than pretty--a real spiritual connection with them exists."

A lot of people have the farmer feeling, says Handelsman, but they've never been able to express it and don't know that others feel the same.

"Many readers have been touched by my book and are so glad to know that other people feel the same way," she says. "Connecting with nature is a totally natural way of being in the world."

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From my experience, I know that seeds can be planted and miracles can grow. My younger sister Katie used to be a typical non-farmer. When she and my sisters and stepfather moved into a new home in Orange Hills 13 years ago, I remarked how beautiful the view from the kitchen window was and she agreed.

"You can see the Broadway at the mall from here," she said.

For years I wrote Katie off as a hopeless cause until one spring day last year when she told me that she wanted to grow some plants at her apartment and asked for direction. Scared the feeling would pass, I immediately pulled her to my potting bench and gave her a lesson on seed raising.

Last summer, she grew a number of plants, including basil, and I smiled, because I knew that something much more than herb seed had been started. A farmer had been born.

For information on the University of California Master Gardener Program, call (714) 708-1646.

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