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How making a garden is like building a life


…or how I discovered a lot of what I needed to know in my backyard. Our backyard makeover began with sadness. First, one huge, big shade tree fell over after a storm. So, we worked with landscapers to design a place that would be welcoming and comfortable but with gravel, and decomposed granite, and wood chips and California native plants. We didn’t do this to be cool, but simply to live with less water in the desert landscape. It ended up being pretty cool, though. But partly because the second huge, big shade tree was still standing—so half the yard was California desert and half the yard was shade over woodchips and succulents and flowers.


A few years later, we had to make the difficult decision to take down that second tree. Like its neighbor it was hollow in its core so it would seep water after every rain, and it had been topped a few times by the previous homeowners, which did keep it from getting too tall, but it didn’t like, according to the arborist we called in to see how long we could keep it growing. So, rather than having this tree fall down on the house or the neighbor’s wall, we decided to be safe and say good-bye to the tree and to the shade. Its woodchips are now scattered all over this part of the yard so it lives on in our space. I do miss the shade but our new space has grown on me. Kind of like in life—when we can accept inevitable change, then we more quickly can begin to enjoy the new things that come our way.


Now there was full sun in the backyard so I decided I wanted a garden. We’d had a successful smaller one in the front yard for a few years and I wanted to expand. Where we live the soil is clay and full of rocks—they are called Claremont potatoes but really they are about as big as two or three russets put together—not very conducive to growing vegetables. Raised boxes are the way go and had worked well in the front. But this time I wasn’t going to hire the landscapers and decided to build them myself, though I'd never built a garden box before. Feeling handy with my tools and with my father, an avid woodworker, available as a lifeline to call if I got stuck, I got started. Having someone to support you along the way sure helps!


I called the landscape company and asked them how they did it. They were awfully cool about it and told me exactly what to buy down to the exact type of wood from which lumber store and the type of screws that would last forever. I honestly can say I had never before built anything with 6” screws—I felt the power! It’s cool in life when people are willing to share their experience and knowledge with you. (Remember to return the favor sometimes.)


Putting the box together was relatively easy. Finding a flat spot that was seven feet long, not so much. If you don’t get the wood evenly aligned it can crack over time. So, I moved it from the garage to the patio to the sidewalk in front of our house. Did I mention that redwood is heavy? I’m sure I was overly careful to get it just so, but eventually, I got all three boxes done—OK one per weekend! Patience and care when building a life is also helpful. And finally, the acceptance that you will do the best you can with what you have.


Then the soil. Since these boxes sit above ground I needed to fill them, so next came three trips to the building supply store. We don’t have a truck and dirt is heavier than redwood so instead of bottoming out my 2000 Honda CRV, I just put what it could carry in the back in some large tubs. Luckily, it took a weekend for building each box anyway, so I could spread out the drive for soil as well! You sometimes have to keep your eye on the future goal (tomatoes!!) when it takes so long to complete something.


Now we are into our third full growing season with these backyard garden boxes and we have enjoyed bok choy, chard, garlic, onions, tomatoes, fava beans, strawberries, lettuce, zucchini and cucumbers! As long as we amend the soil in between planting, we continue to have plants that produce. I love knowing that I built these boxes, filled them with dirt, repaired the irrigation when needed, & planted, watered and harvested multiple types of vegetables in this small space. The cycle of the seasons, the experimentation with where to plant what, knowing the bounty of what we tend will grow and produce—all these inform how I continue to nurture my own life.


•Sometimes life will feel dormant while other times it will grow all over the place.

•Experimentation and patience are important.

•I grow and build and develop with what I have before me.

•Sometimes life is abundant, and other times not so much.

•When I attend to what’s important, when I intend to do or be in line with my own values, when I tend with care to my body and my mental and emotional health, life’s better.

•I recognize there is a season for different things in my life.


While my garden began with sadness over a lost tree, it has become an oasis for me (def: a fertile spot in the desert). And my life, a mulchy mixture of joy and sadness, hope and loss, continues to be fertile ground for growth, change, and discovery.

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