The very last place I lived in Denver had a microscopic yard with little sunlight and no hope for vegetables. It sat so close to the neighbors, I could hear them shaving in the morning. I asked the Universe for space and boy, did it deliver. I found five acres for rent at the rural periphery of Portland, Oregon, so far away from the next house that you could throw a baseball with all your might and still fall short of their roof by half. It was perfect.
The land had been a nursery back in its heyday but now it lay fallow with bushes and trees overgrown, still in their rows: sweet gum and Atlas Cedar, privet and laurel, rhododendron and azalea. The bane of the northwest, Himalayan Blackberry, entwined the whole, holding everything tight in its stickery grip. It looked a little like Sleeping Beauty’s castle after the witch had cast her spell of thorns. The defunct gas pump by the garage was historically frozen at thirty-four cents a gallon (So, the witch’s last visit was in the 1960s) and wasn’t serving up much more than low rent housing for hornets. The garage, itself, was wonderfully large but extremely basic and the little house it came with was a tiny blank slate. But there was a shining jewel in this lackluster crown. There was a greenhouse.
Not just any old fiberglass box, either, this was the gardener’s motherlode. It was positively huge. You could park twelve cars inside or two semi tractor trailers side by side. It had a good frame, a gravel floor, and was hooked up to both water and electricity. There was even a working ventilation fan at one end of the peaked roof. But none of it had been used in years–decades, probably.
Dare I look in?
There, that’s better. Found all sorts of gardening goodies in there. Hundreds of pots in eleven different sizes and styles, several yards of bagged soil and peat moss, hoses, tools, growing tables, a soil sifter, a potting table, seed trays, a truck load of milled wood in all shapes and sizes, cedar shakes (the landlord called dibs on those, damnit, but I managed to beg off a handful for the mailbox I put together later), and several hundred neglected but amazingly hardy baby fastigate yews, aucubas, and boxwoods, both regular and variegated. I set up the potting table and got dreaming. Think I have enough pots?
Mmmm, wood. Oh, the possibilities. Wait a minute…wood. Didn’t I see a ton of wood somewhere else in that greenhouse? Ah, yes, the growing beds. A dozen lovely rectangles of delicious, 6×10, pressure-treated goodness just waiting for a shovel and crowbar to liberate them from their dusty prison. (See below)
boxwood to install a professional English-style hedge along one edge of the property, punctuating every metal fence post of the neighbor’s ugly barbed wire eyesore with a delicate curly willow tree. The timbers that once cradled those boxwoods transmogrified into deck form.
I spread out over a dozen flats of seed starting trays and whipped myself into a planting frenzy, breaking open seed packets I’d been hoarding for years. Deep magenta celosia, mixed pink and white cosmos, four kinds of sunflowers, jasmine scented nicotiana, golden marigold, flame orange zinnia, mixed carnations, baby’s breath, and scarlet runner beans burst out of the little soil dividers and grew like gangbusters. And grew. And grew.
Did you know that cosmos get really freakin’ big? (Oops.)
The round, undulating gardens I cut in to soften the hard edges of the out buildings exploded in all directions with leaves, stems, flowers, bees, and butterflies. Hummingbirds zipped around like arrogant red bottle rockets. Northwestern Spotted Towhees and Oregon Juncos kept a running Broadway musical going in the bushes. Cinnabar moths decorated the grass like holly berries on a Christmas wreath. Moles dug up dark brown landing strips for them in the lawn. Velvety giant Hawk moths made evening stealth visits. Rough-skinned Newts inspected the front walkway after a rain. Tree frogs kept me awake nightly under the bedroom window. Deer said good morning in the mist, sometimes with their fawns. In that first year, I learned a few things.
1. Denver hard pan is to Oregon soil what instant coffee is to crack cocaine. Northwestern volcanic humus is powerful stuff. The joke about sticking a pencil in the ground and watching it grow is not as far fetched as you might think. Therefor, you do not need to plant things close together in Oregon to fill up the space. The space will be filled in short order. And the sidewalk. And the front step. And the doorway. (See above)
3. If you want real comedy, plant tall, spindly sunflowers and then watch fat, heavy squirrels try to figure out what they’re doing wrong about half way up.
4. Slugs think marigolds and zinnias are lollipops.
5. There are 10 different kinds of garden slugs in Oregon.
6. Weeding is not necessary on a daily basis in the Willamette Valley. Weeding is necessary on an hourly basis in the Willamette Valley. (See #1)
8. Fawns are cute as the dickens when they are playing twenty feet away on your front lawn.
9. Himalayan Blackberry is evil in the garden…and delicious on pancakes.
10. Nature is famous for throwing the occasional curve ball, especially from seed. (See photo right)
The following year, I rolled up my sleeves with renewed determination and rising courage. After installing a fire pit, a boardwalk, two trellises and an arbor, all out of reclaimed materials found on site, I was ready to broaden my horizons into the rest of the four and a half square acres I hadn’t touched yet. The landlord secured the services of a neighborhood excavation company to level (literally) the playing field regarding the blackberry brambles. Here, you see them striking back at the bulldozer with the well-known and much-feared Wrap Yourself Around Everything and Try to Make It Bleed Maneuver.
I experimented with all sorts of flowers, annuals and perennials alike. I got a crash course in the simultaneous mixing of texture and color. Finally, I lived in a climate where the plants actually grow to look like the picture on the outside of the seed packet. Denver can stick it.
I planted multiple sunflower varieties again, including Teddy Bear, Vanilla Ice, Velvet Queen, and the famous Mammoth that grew so heavy with seeds, it bent down to face the ground. I let them all dry on the stalk for winter interest and handy bird feeding. Chickadees are gaga for sunflower seeds, as are American Goldfinches, Western Scrub Jays, and house finches which made for some pretty colorful company.
I relegated the cosmos to the side garden to surround the deck along with snow white Jasmine Scented Nicotiana. In the evenings, I got comfy in a lawn chair and breathed in the sweet aroma while I waited for hawk moths to appear and work over the flowers like little helicopters of pink and grey silk. Sometimes, the coyotes would sing accompaniment.
In the background, you can just see the start of the formal boxwood hedge.
I struck a deal with the landlord to tend a large potato patch for him and his family on the property if he left his four stage rototiller on site for my use. And use it, I did–ecstatically. I plotted out the largest organic vegetable garden I had ever attempted. It took four passes with the tiller to break up the compacted, weedy soil, but once it softened it was like velvet.I planted Birdhouse Gourds, Sugar Pie Pumpkin, Big Max Pumpkin, Striped Klondike Watermelon, Sugar Baby Watermelon, Crimson Sweet Watermelon, Honeydew Melon, Sweet-n-Early Cantaloupe, Burpee’s Ambrosia Hybrid Cantaloupe, Table King Acorn Squash, Buttercup Squash, Blue Lake Bush Beans, zucchini, cucumber, Honey Select Triplesweet Hybrid Sweet Corn, Jubilee Hybrid Supersweet Sweet Corn, Early Snowball Cauliflower, Waltham 29 Broccoli, Sweet Basil, cilantro, parsley, leeks, Evergreen Long White Bunching Onion, Walla Wall Onion, Early California Red Onion, artichokes, Sugar Snap Pole Peas, Ferry’s Round Dutch Cabbage, New York Crisphead Lettuce, Romaine Lettuce, Mesclun Salad Mix Lettuce, Black-seeded Simpson Lettuce, Olympia Spinach, jalapeno peppers, California Wonder Pepper, Celebrity Tomato, Sweet 100 Tomato, Danver’s Halflong Carrot, Nantes Coreless Carrot, Dante Halflong Carrot, and radishes.
Hey, I had a greenhouse, remember?A wire fence stands on the right with sunflowers and birdhouse gourds woven into it. Years later, I still have all the gourds, dried out and ready for projects. Man, they were prolific.I still remember their funky flowers.
In the wake of all this activity and hope, the garden produced a pile of delicious food and hilarious lessons.
1. Deer think broccoli heads are M&Ms. Once they know where the plants are, you will never, ever have full grown broccoli.
2. Lettuce looks crisp and sweet in the morning light in spring. In summer, it promptly bolts and becomes sulfurous and nasty. The difference between “spring” and “summer” in Oregon can be one weekend.
3. Onions take forever to mature. For. Ev. Er. Just buy the freakin’ things at the market.
4. If you think zucchini are a vegetable making machine with no Off switch, you haven’t seen a happy cantaloupe vine, or four.
5. Don’t plant radishes unless you love them. Really. Don’t.
7. There will come a point early on in the weeding nightmare when you realize your mistake: you should have planted all the rows exactly lawn mower width apart and just fired the damned thing up every other weekend. Because this sucks.
8. Soaker hoses sound like a hassle. They’re not. The definition of “a hassle” is dragging a sun-heated black hose around a huge garden in July while sweat drips down into your underwear.
9. Planting in orderly rows may be visually satisfying but taking a tip from Native American tradition and bunching things together, like corn stalks shading tender melon vines, really does work. Ditto with planting stinky things next to tasty things in order to deter hooved and other furry nibblers.
10. If you discover moles, just move.
Was all the effort worth it? Hell, yeah. Nothing tastes as good as tomatoes from your back yard. Nothing feels as good as being part of their creation and knowing that the only things making up those lovely scarlet orbs is sunlight, soil, love, and water. Okay, and tilling, weeding, planting, watering, and transplanting. But after all that work, you need a tomato.
I only lived on this property for about two years but I wouldn’t trade a day of it. I had the best landlord I have ever encountered before or since as well as freedom, space, silence, beauty, privacy, and vegetables. And peace, I had fields of peace. Even with the owls hooting like foghorns at night during the mating season, I had it. Every once in a while, I return to the neighborhood to visit the friends I made back then. We trade plants and garden together. It’s what gardeners do.