3. Yard Work, Gardening, Slavery, Hobby
The first plant I ever remember purposely cultivating was a simple annual called Celosia. It’s a plant I consider garish and unrefined today. It’s an annual, so it has to be replanted every year. It’s got a large “cockscomb” flower at the top of its single stem. You usually see them planted en masse in flower bed, or maybe lining a path. In twenty years of committed gardening, I have never planted it again. But this little plant was special to me for some reason. It was given to me at the mall where my step-brothers and I would hang out on weekends or summer break. We would often get free samples at the candy store (until they kicked us out), find treasures in the dumpsters outside J.C.Penny, Walgreens, or Diamond’s (Mesa’s version of Macy’s, now owned by Dillard’s), or once a year, free seedlings from the garden center.
At the time I would have told you that I hated “yard work”. I wouldn’t have known what gardening meant, I’m sure. Yard work I knew. It meant cutting the grass at 6 am in the middle of the summer because by 10 am, when any self respecting summer vacationing 10 year old wanted to get up, it would be 100 degrees in the shade. It meant pulling weeds by hand as soon as there was any shade in the rosebuds, and it meant cleaning up dog poop around the pool before being allowed to swim in said pool.
My step-brother Clark and I would take turns mowing the boring square patch of lawn in the front yard. Back and forth lengthwise we would push the two-stroke gas mower as it screamed and belched toxic fumes that were hotter than the morning air. After a certain number of passes, trying to clip as wide a path as possible without missing a strip between passes, we would trade. Of course we did always leave a strip, which just meant more work going back over it. The problem with getting up early in the suburbs of Phoenix in mid June? It’s already miserable by 6 am. We detested it. I don’t remember the consequences of doing bad work, but I do remember that it always was bad work. I don’t remember ever being praised by my father. He was a product of his generation. It was a job that needed to get done, not a moment for praise.
We were responsible for clearing out the cuttings when my father would prune the Pyracantha bushes, and though I’m sure it’s because he was too self-centered to even think of buying his kids gloves for gardening, the reason I remember being given for us working gloveless while he, of course, did not, was because our hands were smaller and we could grab between the thorns, and while I’m sure that it’s true we could have grabbed between the thorns with our smaller hands, you don’t cary shrub clippings one at a time and hope to spend less than an entire day moving them all. The best advice coming from my father? Stop whining and toughen up. As I said before, he was a product of his generation.
Pruning the ivy growing on the back porch was neck and neck with the pyro bushes for most hated summer job. While it’s true that ivy has no thorns, it is also true that I am extremely allergic to ivy (and grasses and a number of trees, just like my father). Piles of acrid smelling vines would pile up under my fathers ruthless hacking. Dust, and most likely spiders, danced in the hot, dry, and mercilessly still air. We would gather up as much as we could carry at a time, sneezing and hacking out the back gate and dumping them in the alley. Return and pick up another armful. Rinse (preferably the garden hose, but the pool was right there in a pinch), repeat.
Weed pulling was grueling, and we never did a good enough job according to my father. Which I have to admit is probably true. By my standards today I would consider our work mostly half-assed. But we were ten, and ten year olds suck at everything. That’s what it means to be ten.
Yet even though I was convinced that I HATED yard work. I still took this little Celosia plant home and planted it in the only bare dirt on our lot that would receive full sun. A tiny corner where the carport met the path to the front door. Bare dirt, and direct, blazing, scorching sun from noon until around 6. Now, when I planted I was careful to crack the soil into as many smallish clumps as I could so that there was a decent chance some of the water would pause on it’s way by. Of course you had to be careful when packing the dirt clods back around the base of the plant not to crush, well, everything. Then water thoroughly, make sure drainage is good (I always assumed that the dirt in my little garden being bone dry within minutes to be a good sign where drainage was concerned). All I had to do now was sit back and prepare to be blown away with the lush and vibrant little plant shown on the little black plastic pot the little sprout was packaged in!
For several years I planted one of these perky little seedlings. Every year it lasted about three or four hours in the relentless Phoenix sun. The fact that years later I took a barren patch of dirt in the courtyard of the duplex Laurie, William, and I shared in Woodland and planted a garden (never to see fruition as this was the summer Laurie and I separated), proves to me that I have the soul of a gardener. So when I moved in with Pete in his middle-class duplex on the fringes of East Sac, it just seemed natural that I would help him renovate the front and back yards. He had made a start in the back with a little sprucing, but the front was a complete tear-down. The shrubs were dreadful. Every person that lived there or visited seemed to be allergic to them, they smelled funny, and they were completely out of control. The lawn was pure weeds, and the yard had no character. So I took charge. Pete put his energy into preparing the soil for seeding a new lawn, we replaced the shrubs with better behaved varieties, planted roses, lined the walkway, and added a perennial bed at the corner. In the fall Pete seeded, and before we new it we had a half way decent front yard.
As it happens, we only lived there a few months longer. A house we had passed daily on our way to the coffee shop a few blocks away suddenly dropped it’s asking price by a few thousand dollars, and we realized we could actually afford it with a little cash flow management.
It was my dream house. It was a cute little bungalow with casement windows, beautiful hardwood floors, and 1927 charm coming out the wazoo. When we moved in we were ecstatic, but of course like any good home owner I saw all the flaws that needed fixing right away.
The first thing I did the very first weekend after we took possession was to kill off the side yard. It was a waste of space. I wasn’t about to maintain a silly little 6 by 10 patch of lawn. It became a rose garden over the next winter. I then started planting the front, and by the middle of the next summer Pete and I were redoing the back yard. Suddenly I was gardening, not doing yard work! Pete had to promise to prune the bushes and help with the weeding though. You only get so much out of me.