EIGHT years ago, I moved to a central Los Angeles neighborhood with enough ramshackle properties that it was a favorite filming ground for companies producing horror movies. Scarcely more than a block away was an abandoned house, replete with the remnants of what clearly had been a gracious garden. As I plunged into feverish fix-it-up mode in my own yard, for some reason, I kept being drawn around the corner to the spooky place. Its lesson was slow and haunting: that my highest aspiration as a gardener should be to master the art of neglect.
The abandoned garden occupied a pleasing crescent-shaped lot that extended around the side of a Craftsman home built in the fusion style of mausoleum meets antebellum. Local gossip varied about how the house came to sit empty for more than a year. Somebody died or moved. In his absence, cobwebs draped the arbor. The lawn died.
But in the dry shade of 2-century-old cedars, most of the other plants endured. The leaves of the box hedges darkened, then turned olive, gold and red, but plumped out after winter rain. The birds of paradise around a long-dry fountain furled their leaves under stress, but somehow the plants put up spiky displays of flowers that dribbled enough nectar to incite territorial disputes among the hummingbirds. The sum was a still, ghostly beauty.
In contrast, by electing to reseed my lawn around planting beds front and back, and heaping on lots of nitrogen rich amendments, I had assured rocketing growth. After the initial thrill of a sudden garden came a sobering reality: feeding and grooming it. This involved winter cover seeding of rye grass, truckloads of manure top dressing, three to four hours a week of watering, $40 a pop for weekly mowing, and moving overflowing green bins to the curb on Sunday evenings.
For years, it was alternately so labor-intensive and noisy that I didn't bother with garden furniture. No time to sit down, no quiet among the block's many mow-and-blow teams. If I wanted peace, I could go to the abandoned garden, which I found myself doing with surprising regularity until, after a year or so, the property was sold.
The new owners promptly fixed the fountain, restored the arbor, ripped out the birds of paradise, installed irrigation and replaced the turf. Except for ripping out the birds of paradise and adding two life-sized plastic cows to the garden, they didn't do anything that I wouldn't have done and did much that I wish I had. It took years to understand a lingering sense of loss.
The reclamation was, I now realize, the end of the only place in the neighborhood where the tempo of the garden was dictated by nature, not man. By turning on the water, the new owners had taken the garden's often ragged and bittersweet progress through the four seasons and replaced it with manicured beauty and the deep greens of suspended spring.
MY maternal grandfather was the last one in my family who had the reflexive instinct to do a critical reckoning before breaking ground. He was a farmer, and before putting in a crop, his first step was always to calculate what it needed: How much water and amendments meant how much growth, meant how much yield, meant how much labor, meant how much fuel, meant how much cost, and so on.
In my feverish early start, it never occurred to me that the calculations might apply to my eighth of an acre parcel, and that my desired crop was serenity.
Looking back at old water and maintenance bills, I am stunned by the energy and money I put into a model that systematically undermined my goal. Instead of creating a haven where seasons progressed in swells from magnificent to melancholic, and where peace and privacy were assured, I had subjected myself to a labor-intensive regimen where I lacked sufficient affection for the result to even bother to execute it properly.
The Pomona nurseryman John Greenlee has thoughts about how I, and others like me, can avoid this mistake.
"The crux," he says, "is that at the end of the day, as a gardening nation, as a culture, we have to learn about plants."
Harsh but true. The problem, he thinks, is that people use them as decoration without considering their natural cycle. In the wild, plants are adapted not to stand still and look good, but to reproduce. In the wild, grass equipped to live here shoots up at a hint of water and grows fast in order to flower and set seed, which in a ballet with the wind, it casts off before dying. That cycle and thousands of ones like it by other plants is how nature displays its seasonal glory, provided that we allow this to happen.
It's obvious to Greenlee, who has a degree in horticulture, and would have been obvious to my grandfather, that the first way we accelerate the pace for all the plants in our garden is with water. Our hoses and sprinkler systems give plants two options: grow or drown. The roots of a plant that enters dormancy while still being watered will rot out beneath it.