The best gardeners seem to get the worst dirt. Or maybe it's the dirt that forces them to gardening greatness.
When I visited Catherine Ratner's garden in Palos Verdes Estates, I was barely inside the front door when she insisted I look at the photos laid out on the kitchen table.
They showed her property before she began the taming process, plus a neighboring hillside home where workers were excavating. Photos of the latter revealed a thin layer of black adobe on top of solid white shale, sometimes called Palos Verdes stone when it's used to make patios.
Pointing to the photos, she said: "That's my alibi."
But this gardener of 52 years needs no alibi. Despite a fearsome soil that has to be dug in to be appreciated, her garden is an exquisite mix of unusual plants that are carefully tended.
The Southern California Horticultural Society displays cut blooms of unusual plants at its monthly meetings, and for years I had noticed that many of my favorites were identified as coming from the garden of Cathy Ratner.
"That must be some garden," I would think to myself, and it is, although it wasn't always so.
As a girl growing up in the Berkeley hills of Northern California, she played in her mother's "big, untidy" garden but paid little attention to her surroundings.
It wasn't until she and her late husband bought their first house near Pico and Sawtelle boulevards in West L.A. that she began begging starts of unusual plants from her mother, including a wild freesia that still thrives under Ratner.
This garden is her fourth, if you don't count a brief, cold stay in Massachusetts.
"I guess it could be in the blood," she said, "but I really don't know why I love gardening." A retired nursery school director and teacher, she spends about 14 hours a week working in the garden, "though it might be more since I'm always dashing outside in my bathrobe to do something."
"I do know it's the process I enjoy, the caring for the individual plants. It takes your mind off other things and to others it might look like work, but I enjoy it. That's why I would never have someone else do all the hard work, though sometimes, when I'm covered in dirt and getting stuck by thorns, I wonder myself why I'm doing this."
Ratner admits that when she simply can't reach a plant--such as a perfectly pruned but rather tall wisteria vine that spirals around a post by the entry--or can't budge a boulder, she gets help. But that's only about twice a year.
Despite the impeccably pruned wisteria, she considers herself "not a tidy gardener. It becomes too much like housework, which I hate."
Her garden has a cultivated but natural look. "I'm not very good with design," Ratner said, "so I just keep fiddling with things until they look like they might in nature.
"I have slowly learned that lining plants up in a row or alternating one of this and one of that doesn't look good. I like designed gardens, such as the formal gardens of Italy, but I don't want my garden to be that way."
She quickly added: "However, gardening is a very personal thing. It should be what you like. If you only like bougainvilleas and impatiens, as a friend of mine does, they too can make a lovely garden when they're cared for."
She considers her garden "on the wild side."
"There are people who look at gardening like exterior decorating. They make a plan and follow it," she said. "Then there are those like me who start with the plant."
She even has a photo of the garden's first plant, a tiny thing in a gallon can. It's surrounded by stones big enough for a rock garden; she had to remove the stones to dig the planting hole.
"I love to try new things," Ratner said. Her garden is a splendid smorgasbord of plants from around the world, although she favors plants that can get by on little water, including our own natives and many plants from the Mediterranean, Australia and South Africa. Her back slope is only watered in winter, then fends for itself in summer.
She seems to mix plants with abandon. A native California sage, Salvia clevelandii, grows next to a rose named 'Mutabilis.' On the other side of the rose grows a rockrose from the stony slopes of Greece, Cistus skanbergii. She claims the rockrose needs more water than the variably colored rose, which is admittedly one of the most drought tolerant of the clan.
Plants are arranged more by color than by culture. The garden starts in front with mostly purple flowers, fades into lime green in the side yard, then erupts into yellow and orange and other brilliant colors in back.
Ratner doesn't force plants into her garden. "I grow what will grow here. I don't fight the soil." Which is probably a good idea, given the soil's intractability.
She offered to give me some clumps of the black mondo grass and the wild freesias I was admiring, and when I went to dig them up, I was astounded at just how awful this thin, black adobe soil is.