It all started when my father built a playhouse. He put in a series of tiered pools, one flowing into another, below our hillside house. He hardscaped a terrace and built descending steps to the playhouse out of salvaged concrete. There were other fine pleasures, like the zip line of a cable and pulley, which he suspended across the vacant lot next door. We kids could swoop across, just above the weeds, to be caught in his agile arms at the lower end. There was also a jungle gym, and soon a victory garden with beets and (ugh!) radishes near the place where my dad had earlier told us about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
I wasn’t too happy when he filled in the big pool after the birth of my youngest brother. “Just in case,” he said. The pool was under my bedroom window, where the sound of deep-throated frogs kept me awake on summer nights.
It was here in this garden that I felt most serene with my father, fathers being what they are, a guiding force and all that.
No matter where I lived my life, I was always gardening. By eighteen, the end of my youthful days on Clayton Avenue, I had just been one of the dancing brides in 7 Brides for 7 Brothers. I moved on to Broadway, and a penthouse on Beekman Place. On Sundays I would just be pickled with pleasure visiting nurseries with my friend, Saul. He would fill every interior space of his fine Cadillac with plants and composting soil to be hauled up in the service elevator to perform spring-to-winter miracles on a Manhattan skyline.
I love growing stuff. I gloat, glimmer and carouse with joy in any woodland meadow. Just touching the leaves of a plant gives me giddy powers of intrepid immortality. Pardon my persnicketiness, but I think gardens are the perfect place to be.
There would never be a housing crisis if I were king. I would tear down all the McMansions and turn them into gardens. I would Le Notre all of our public parks and landscape America’s freeways and turnpikes. With other people’s help, I would Lady Bird Johnson most of the inner cities. And that’s just for a start.
I am queen, however, of about one-third of an acre in Los Angeles, on a mighty fine piece of land where “everything grows.” I’m not too popular with my neighbors and the immigrant leaf blower lads they exploit, those janitors with fumes, causing impending deafness. No leaf blowers please. I, on the other hand, want to cherish all the people who work with me. Everything we do on this earth matters. Every cycle we live enriches the one to come. Nothing is too small, nobody too unimportant. The microcosm is the way to understand the macrocosm. It’s just gorgeous from where I sit.
Any conscious filmmaker or gardener eventually finds his focus, his power place, his star. In the world of photosynthetic organisms there is a plant that is the hyperbole of green-gone-galvanic. This queen of all flowers, the Rose, is the jewel in the crown for most garden connoisseurs, the darling we have swooned over for centuries, with its outrageous growth of tangled, naked roots, borne up with thorns, and endowed with an amazing resilience in the worst of conditions. It bursts forth into blossom to become the beauty that our superior intelligence labors to comprehend. A rose can possess nearly any single fragrance and often, is a garden of its own. It is a jackpot to the senses. One surrenders in awe to the detonation in the heart. It is Rome in the palm of your hand. What world-changing decisions will be made by the president standing in his celebrated Rose Garden?
And so, the first catalog arrives and is pored over avidly, interrupting business meetings with personal whoops of glee, “Let’s order this one, that one. Wait, we’ll have to do some shovel pruning there, take that plant out . . . a skimpy bloomer. . . maybe move this to the back . . . such lanky stems.” Thus, the garden takes shape. People begin to admire your success. Your rose serfdom grows. Happily, better interpreters of great garden design, like Bradley James Bontems, show up in your life. Expensive trips to Bali, England, or New Zealand are no longer necessary. You finally have it. The roses bloom. You have reached perfection . . . until next year.
When you find what is your garden
You have found your self