Nearly 3 years ago, I purchased a 1923 bungalow in one of Sacramento’s older downtown neighorhoods. When I first saw the house, I was enchanted by it; it contained all the elements I wanted—including gardens that felt rural while situated in an urban environment. The gardens had been abandoned for over a year and had gone wild, hence the name, Wildlands. The front yard’s management alluded me until very recently (see Uh Oh Jenny post).
The backyard was so overgrown, multiple clean-out sessions were required before I discovered most of it had hardscaping surrounding flower beds bordered by roughly laid bricks. I was convinced either the out-of-control bougenvilla or the morning glories were going to completely overtake the backyard and possibly, the pets, if they were to sit still too long. I installed lattice to screen the potting shed and studio steps, I ripped up the old deck, removed weeds, water-hungry non-natives, and the bougenvilla (which had long hard thorns). I’ve installed a bamboo screen fence along the southern side of the backyard. I didn’t want to put up yet another privacy fence. The bamboo provides enough screening and I’ve planted honeysuckle to augment and soften the effect.
Past inhabitants worked hard to cultivate a beautiful set of gardens that sadly fell into neglect. I’ve learned that it is difficult, but not impossible, to return (and tailor) a green space. I inherited a hundred year old fig tree that is a prolific producer, a lemon tree, an orange tree, a heritage rose, additionally mean-spirited roses with thorns the size of your pinky nail, plum trees along the western border, and unkillable blackberry strands. The lemon and orange trees with a bit of care have produced fruit this year. While not in the bushels, enough for me to make a small batch of marmalade and met additional holiday baking needs. The blackberries are now producing and mildly tamed, growing on a trellis along the fence, beneath the fig tree.
Last year, the veggie garden wasn’t very productive. I took the extra time this year, added soil amendments and mulch and everything including the tomatoes, four pepper varieties, eggplant, cucumbers, and the herb plants are healthy. The currants (planted two years ago) have begun to produce. Fresh currants are plump delicious little berries. The passionfruit has taken over the studio deck and its lattice. A pruning soon—once the fruit is ready to be picked. There must be hundreds of them on those vines. I have volunteer pumpkin plants growing in the small side veggie garden in addition to the half wine barrel along the alley fence.
The most difficult thing for me to recognize and accept has been my property’s natural components— the soil, the amount of sunlight, drainage patterns, etc. This knowledge is essential but can be extremely difficult to accept. One can throw a good deal of money at any situation, but until these components are recognized, frustration will abound. For my own sanity, I took a break from the gardens for well over six months. I would tend to them here and there, but for the most part, I left them alone. I noted the seasonal changes and now have begun managing Wildlands appropriately. I doubt I can ever tame the gardens, but they are becoming manageable. While I will never be able to completely change the soil composition (Sacramento clay), I can slowly improve the health and beauty of the gardens through the use of amendments, appropriate plant selection, and french drains.
Wildlands is now managed as organically as possible—no pesticides, herbicides, or chemical plant “food.” That’s my natural inclination. I bought mulch recently at big box store (sigh) but I am looking for a local source. Given Siddhartha’s grazing habit, it is critical that the house and the gardens are safe, contain few or no chemicals and no poisonous plants. In the summer, he can be found out under the fig tree’s shade browsing the fallen plums and figs—his own personal snack shack. He eats the passionfruit off the vine as well. As such, the veggie garden has a low fence to prevent tomato browsing by the dear black beast.
The concept of organic management is so completely foreign to many of my neighbors. It isn’t that they are against it, but the idea of maintaining a green space without the use of chemicals or irrigation seems impractical. They’ve been a bit frustrated watching me rip up the grass in the front yard and slowly, but surely replace it with drought-tolerant salvias, sages, Lantana, nasturtium, coyote bush, and lavender (with an emphasis on native species). I’ve treated the poor soil with amendments including mulch, manure, and compost. Newspaper has replaced the multiple layers of black plastic that I’ve ripped up in the backyard under the existing flowerbeds (which was then covered with at least 6 inches of blue mexican rock). While the plastic reduced the spring time weeds, it also prevented natural decomposition of the plant matter during the fall and winter.
The gardens are an admixture of native and non-native plants but all focused on drought-tolerance. The back yard receives a good deal of shade and so, I’ve planted ferns and other shade-loving perennials. When it is 100 degrees, we all retreat to the hammock and shade of the back deck where it is significantly cooler.
The previous owners left a lot of stuff in the garage and I’ve found lots of neat items in there (as well as a good deal of non-so neat things. I’ve slowly gotten rid of the unwanted items). The larger rocks, cobble, brick, countless “odd” items including a great old door, gates, and an old ladder have become ornamental garden pieces that I found either buried or hidden around the place. Old iron pieces found in the garage now hang on the side of the studio, croquet set sits nestled in passionfruit vines. They add a good deal of character to the place. The gardens in particular reflect my desire to reduce the amount of items I purchase (plants aside), coupled with my creativity to find a new function for an old object that is broken or that I no longer need. I built a new deck under the fig tree two years ago using recycled lumber purchased off of Craigslist. I raised the flowerbeds using redwood planks and built flower boxes for the front and side of the house using wood I’d found stacked up in the garage.
Wildlands will continue to evolve as time passes and I better understand the terms and conditions by which I can co-habitat with the existing house and gardens. It does take a bit of willpower—my willful determination to have that species grow here have resulted in many, many plant killings. This is the first season I gained enough ground and can appreciate the altered landscaping. The place is evolving into a green space refuge in an otherwise urban neighborhood in the downtown.
In the last week alone, I have seen over a dozen passerines species flying through the yard (and I’m sure if I paid more attention, I’d see many, many more, but alas, I’m not a birder), two praying mantises, a dragonfly, ants, more ants, beetles (the good kind), lots of bees (including huge fat bumblebees), way too many spiders (yikes), and a vole (which peaked Sweetpea’s interest). To her dismay, a red-shouldered hawk also has been seen perched in the top of the fig tree, though, I hope the bats who lived in the top last year will return.
This morning, I went out to water the veggies and take the pictures of the fruiting items. I noticed a volunteer morning glory wrapping itself around the buddha statue and this sight made me smile. I’ve tried since last summer to eradicate the morning glories from this one specific bed. This place really does have a mind of its own, I am merely the steward.
A few people have emailed me to ask where I get my native plants. My primary resource is a small business vendor at the weekly farmer’s market (see Eats and Treats XW Farmer’s Market post). The name of the business is All Things Wild and her website is www.allthingswildca.com . So far, I have purchased nearly over a dozen plants from her and they are all doing quite well. She has a wide variety of plants and has been a great resource. So far, I’ve gotten Ceanothus, sticky monkey brush (orange flowers), mexican hat (beautiful colour varieties), coyote mint, salvia clevelandii (stunning sage!!), three other varieties of sage, and a dusty pink/deep red yarrow. Check her out.
I purchase all my lavendar from the Lavendar Farm in Lincoln, CA. They are at the farmer’s market each week and the source for plants and dried lavendar (for cookies). Their email address is www.thelavenderfarminlincoln.com . It is a wife and husband operation and I think they are great. In blooming season, they open up the farm for visitors and I’m going to head out there in the next few weeks!!