Mediterranean Garden Society
Reflections on our Southern California gardens in the time of pandemic
Edited by Ann Semaan Beisch
Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 101, July 2020
The photo at the top of this page shows weeds growing amongst recently planted foxtail agaves (Agave attenuata) in the garden of an MGS member in Los Angeles
Ann Semann Beisch writes: “It is spring in Southern California, a pandemic has paralysed the world, and we are all grounded at home. I asked members of our Southern California Branch to consider sharing a page from their garden journals with me in this time of crisis. The vignettes that follow are a precious glimpse of our gardens and their place in our hearts during these times of crisis.”
Weeding in Los Angeles
I love to weed. In the best of circumstance weeding reacquaints me with my garden, and in the worst of circumstances it so totally occupies my being that I forget everything else.
There is a rhythm to my weeding as I bend, kneel, pull and haul. And I am absorbed in the act itself and the order that my labour produces. I inhale the sharp smells of the pulled weeds, the feel of the loosened soil, and the delicate details of this expanse of plants, visible again. What a reprieve those lanky catchweed (Galium aparine), stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and common dandelions (Taraxacum campylodes, syn. T. officinale) offer from the isolation and anxiousness of this Covid-induced crisis.
My garden, with a view of the Los Angeles city skyline, slopes gently downward on one side of a boxwood hedge, bordered by a broad swathe of lawn and rosemary patches. The bank is a work in progress, refurbished, nourished and replanted last autumn with hundreds of foxtail agaves (Agave attenuata). It is here that all kinds of creepers, volunteers and coarse-leafed devils moved in after the winter rain, to propagate happily.
These squatters took over the slope. They included huge dandelions reaching for the sky, almost 30cm high, with nasty saw-toothed leaves so coarse one would never eat them. When tender, they can be a delicacy in a salad. Spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculata) camouflaged itself as groundcover amidst the planting. However, the beds of Sweet Clover (Oxalis pes-caprae) that spread over the very bottom of the slope were allowed to be, as they were much too beautiful to remove.
The focus and rhythm of my weeding is meditative, putting this pandemic in perspective. The crisis is frightening and horrific in human suffering, strange in the new “virtual” lifestyle it has brought and sad for what has passed, a cri de coeur for a world being left behind. But weeds return and with them the profound hope for rebirth in a world to be.
The sharing gardener in Pasadena: gardeners are fortunate souls
Where others see despair and uncertainty, we notice a bed of radiant purple irises blooming in a neighbour’s garden. Instead of watching the growing number of Covid-19 cases, we see the bare branches of the hackberry tree begin to sprout the first delicate leaves of spring. When Wall Street dives and there is uncertainty, we feel the soft earth beneath our feet after an unexpected spring shower.
Instead of watching endless TV news, we notice the bees gathering pollen from the first spring flowers. We transplant our vegetable seedlings serenaded by birdsong. We smile to see the lizards that live in our compost piles, we welcome the newly arriving birds at our feeders, we breathe in the fresh air after the rains pass, and we catch the reflection of the sky in the pools of water on the brick patio. In our quiet moments at home, we observe the buds forming and the blueberry flowers plumping into summer fruit.
This is who we are and how a gardener walks through the world. We are not oblivious to Covid-19, but nature is our constant reminder that no matter how much it might feel as if the sky is falling, it is not. Spring will follow winter.
I don’t know how I could stay grounded in these difficult times without my garden and a constant awareness of the natural world. For that understanding I am very grateful.
My stay-at-home breaks have been punctuated by daily walks with my dog Wags, a lively springer spaniel. On these rambles I have spoken with neighbours who are also at home with their families. Some neighbours I knew a little bit, some not at all. As we talked I asked them if they were thinking of starting a vegetable garden this spring. Many thought this was a good idea. The idea was especially appealing to parents with young children who saw it as a project that was both educational and practical.
I did have an ulterior motive behind my question. I had a lot of extra heirloom tomato, pepper and eggplant plants grown from seed which needed homes. So I have been dropping off flats of plants to neighbours and friends. We have shared emails, exchanged photos and discussed gardening techniques. For the first time I’ve used FaceTime to help lay out two vegetable gardens. To date there are about a dozen neighbours with vegetable gardens and I still have more plants to give away.
We now regularly text the latest photos of our gardens. I’m starting a neighbour’s pepper seeds under my grow lights and when the plants are big enough to transplant, they will share their extra seedlings. Everyone is excited about their gardens and dog walks now include discussions about carrots and beets sprouting as well about the endless rain showers.
Recently one of my neighbours surprised me with a beautiful loaf of home-made challah, a real treasure in these times of scarcity. But the best gift is the knowledge that there is a new group of fortunate gardeners touching the soil, listening to the birds, and following the bees and butterflies as they flitter through their gardens.
Fleeting spring pleasures in a Long Beach garden
“Unusual” is an understatement this spring. We’ve spent multiple days gazing out of the window, watching the rain. It’s late this year. Occasionally someone walks by wearing a face mask and carrying an umbrella. Our small urban garden carries on as always.
The first signs of spring start with fresh green growth popping up around the edge of the brick patio and through the pebbles along the dry streambed that flanks the front walkway. Spring begins in December here, with the shamrock-like leaves of Oxalis ‘Grand Duchess’ and the grass-like sprays of Ipheion uniflorum. Clumps of freesia and narcissus foliage along with tall fans of Chasmanthe stand at attention. February and March are a riot of orange, white, yellow, blue and magenta. Bold bouquets of Clivia, mostly orange, but some yellow, liven up shady spots. Wisteria drapes its lavender blooms along an eyebrow trellis at the south corner of the house and, at the opposite corner, a Lady Banks rose erupts like a yellow fireworks display from the roof. Fragrances greet you on your way to the front door.
Various species of aloe anchor the garden throughout the hot summer months, but they also contribute to the raucous spring display. Aloe thraskii, a drama queen at all times, pokes up a tuft of creamy blooms in January. Aloe maculata (syn. A. saponaria) has been holding up orange blooms for several months, along with some tiny, spreading aloes with red flowers. As we move into April, the clumps of Aloe camperi have sent up their bloom spikes as a reminder that they’ll provide months of coral flowers starting very soon.
Migrating Wilson’s warblers hopped around and treated us to their songs between downpours today.
Oddly, the fleeting pleasures of springtime speak to the durability of the garden, comforting us as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds beyond the gate.
The gifting garden in Glendale
Whatever else might be happening in this world, such as a pandemic, the garden is always there, carrying on in its unhurried and marvellous way; whether it be its bees, tender sprouts, or the business of spring blossoms, it is here, real and ever-present.
The world of my garden connects me to its vital existence, sounds and scents, which belong to it completely. It changes my outlook and makes me happy. Life before I had a garden is hard to recall.
In these days of orders to stay at home, closed parks and beaches and empty streets, the garden is steps away and beckoning. It bids to me to come and be immersed. And I must allow myself to do so, to stop the worry over these less predictable times in which we live.
I walk its gravel paths in this special space dotted with benches here and there. In the morning, I snap pictures of the bright and fragrant Lantana camara cultivars ‘Bandana Cherry’ and ‘Orange Sunrise’. Sometimes the chimes hanging from an old gnarled olive tree catch my attention. I take pictures and just send them to friends like a hug and a kiss. They are my good morning to my mom, my happy Friday to my love, a hug to my daughter.
In the late afternoon, my garden, which faces north-west, high on a Los Angeles hillside overlooking the valley, is often glazed by the sunset. In the “old days” my neighbour and I often shared a glass of wine, toasted the evening and chatted. I still sit on the same bench but it is my cell phone that connects me to friends and neighbours virtually, for now this is the reality of life during a pandemic.
My garden, my peace in Altadena
I am sitting in my patio on a balmy afternoon on the first day of May. I am struck again by how fortunate I am to be living in Altadena, which is located between the majestic San Gabriel Mountains to the north and Pasadena to the south. A lovely breeze cools the warm temperatures. There are patches of dappled sunlight floating through the neighbour’s Chinese elm trees, leaving their impressions on the patio floor. I love sitting here, which my heart recognises, and as a result I am calm and very content even during this difficult time.
I designed the garden in 2012 with the help of my mother and a dear friend. It is an ornamental garden representative of the “old school Pasadena garden”, with many camellias and azaleas. The intention was to have colour in the garden throughout the year. Interestingly, this part of our MGS Branch is in one of the most established gardening areas of Los Angeles, with gardens going back well over a century.
My collection of camellias ranges from the very old at 60 years to some newcomers, cultivated more recently. They include variegated Camellia japonica ‘Daikagura’ known as the “Great Sacred Dance”, C. sasanqua ‘Kanjiro’, C. japonica ‘Kramer’s Supreme’ and C. ‘Tom Knudsen’ and bloom from late December through March. The azaleas are a combination of ‘Pink Lace’ and ‘Red Bird’ which bring a riot of spring colours. This collage of changing colours brings such joy to this special spot.
The delicate Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ that spreads its canopy over Carpenteria californica, Magnolia stellata and Ribes viburnifolium is my favourite. We also have Meyer lemon and mandarin satsuma trees. During April these flowered with a profusion of blooms the like of which I have never seen… or smelled. The roses are simple but prolific with ‘Julia Child’ and ‘Iceberg’. I knew I had to include ‘Julia Child’ given that the real Julia Child was a Pasadena native and also because her namesake is lovely with its creamy yellow beauty. The ‘Iceberg’ roses also add to the garden with their subtle but lovely scents.
Birds, including mockingbirds, hummingbirds and wrens of every variety, are our visitors throughout the year. The haunting morning and evening calls of the California mourning dove are my favourite.
But of all the pleasures my garden gives us, the most special are our mountains which bring colour to the patio throughout the day. During this challenging time we are so fortunate to have a roof over our heads, a lovely patio in which to contemplate, and the mountains that give us a plein-air light show every afternoon. I begin and end my days saying my favourite prayer, Psalm 121, “I lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
The Southern California Branch of the Mediterranean Garden Society has always enjoyed a special place in the MGS. Some of our members were part of that first group of garden-lovers who sowed the seeds of the Mediterranean Garden Society and who nurtured the seedling into a beautiful tree with many branches. Special thanks are due to those members of our Branch who contributed to this collection of vignettes, opening their gardens and their hearts to us in this time of pandemic, including the Co-Branch Head Virginia Paca, and members Barbara Paul, Katie King, Ann Beisch and others.
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