Kage Baker was an accomplished gardener.
That’s why Mendoza is a botanist; Kage wanted to make her main character’s POV as easy as possible to assume. Of all the skills of which she was possessed – juggling brooms, pouring Black & Tans, illuminating manuscripts, applying gold leaf, tying a turk’s head knot – she figured botany would be most likely to resonate with unknown readers. As she wisely noted, Everyone has at least grown carrots and radishes in the backyard.
And she loved the quiet and order of a garden. On the rare occasions when writing failed to soothe and occupy her soul, she went out to work in the garden. I came along for the grunt work; I dug holes, mowed the lawn, held the armfuls of flowers and vegetables she triumphantly harvested. It was a good division of labour, because I’ve never been that crazy about gardening on my own – but when you follow a talented gardener around, you inevitably learn stuff.
Thus – while the spectre of drought has ridden the train into Grand Central downtown, settled his fedora at a cool angle, and moved into the Roosevelt Hotel for the duration – Kimberly and I have been deciding on the transformation of the front yard. For 23 years or so, it has been a nice polite handkerchief of green, flanked by rose beds, shaded by a mulberry tree. It’s been a lawn alive with squirrels, ravens and black pheobes; skunks and raccoons have danced on it by night, until the coyotes come along with their gunslinger swagger to chase everyone up on the roof.
But the mulberry does shed big fat squelchy fruit. which results in stoned birds and tipsy squirrels. And its roots get far too intimate with the plumbing – the last time we replaced a pipe, we found the old one choked with enormous bright carrot-orange roots: Kimberly’s not trusted the mulberry since then. And the grass … well, the grass simply refuses to thrive, unless it is kept in a state of hydration more suitable for a peat bog. With the drought dancing its fandango on the dun-dry hills, grass is become too much of a luxury.
Kage expected California gardening to come to this point – and she only missed it by a little. But, historian that she was, she knew the psychotic storm patterns we enjoy here; she started changing her gardening habits to native, drought-resistant plants years ago. So as it’s become more and more obvious over the last year that English lawns were not an option here anymore, I had a good idea where to start.
We decided to convert to xeriscaping.
Let me draw your attention, Dear Readers, to a wonderful company called Turf Terminators. You may not live in Los Angeles, or anywhere else that is essentially an oasis on the edge of a vast desert. But here – where that is where we really live – the Department of Water and Power has now come to the point where they are paying people to replace their lawn with something that needs little or no waters. Turf Terminators are one of the companies that have sprung up like morning glories on the freeway verge, to accomplish the change.
We signed the paperwork this afternoon. The grass will be replaced with golden stone chips, lovely decomposing granite that will match the stone in the Hollywood Hills. Under it will be a parsimonious drip water system, and a fabric flooring to help keep moisture in the water table. And through it, we’ll plant a lot of bright, hot, sun-loving and water-thrifty flowers to replace the grass. I learned their names from Kage, in our various gardens: penstemon, all manner of sages, the orchid rock roses that she called “Jewels of Ophir”. Rosemary, lavender, ceanothus in every colour of the sea. All of these bear flowers, and all of them attract and nurture bees and hummingbirds and butterflies.
We’ve planted our tomatoes, cucumbers, peas and beans in pots – along with milkweed for the Monarch butterflies. They can all be watered by hand. The lemon tree is ancient and tough as a thorn, and simply doesn’t care what the drought does; the young plums can thrive on grey water. The roses, too, are mature and hardy. But that great horrid mulberry tree, with its squashy, water-greedy fruits, is being replaced with a Chinese pistache tree. It’s drought resistant, gives shade, and in the fall turns colours like a maple tree.
The squirrels are going cold turkey and will have to learn to like peanuts.
So, Life picks up and goes on. Winter stayed in my heart like the snow on the East Coast – March was especially bad. But today, picking out plants and coloured rocks, it felt like it was melting away at last. The garden will be a going concern this year.
And of course, now that we’ve made our choices and our plans, it’s started raining. Los Angeles is staring up into the sky tonight like a turkey in a pen, rain in her eyes and her mouth hanging open: the City has almost forgotten what rain is like. Irony, that’s what it’s like … but now we can be sure that when the rain stops – as it will – and doesn’t resume for another 8 months – as it also will – the new garden will prosper.
It doesn’t matter how Spring comes. As long as it does.