“Watching gardeners label their plants, I vow with all beings to practice the old horticulture and let the plants identify me.”
— Robert Aiken
I tend a spit of land.
In a subdivision full of predictably and reasonably sized lots, this land is a long whisp of earth that reaches south, grabs a significant part of what might have been my neighbor’s yard and claims it as her own. The resulting lot is far longer, best we can tell, than any other in our mid-century northeast heights neighborhood. Neighbors walk into the backyard and let out a bit of a gasp. “Oh, and beyond that fence is the orchard,” I mention. Double gasp.
Long ago the plants of this land were placed in the earth with care and love by a man named Roy Landwehr. He and his wife, Sophia, lived on this lot from the time it was crowned with a home, until many years later when they died. Every single plant in the ground was placed there by them. I think about what that newly purchased lot looked like- a cocoa colored piece of desert– fenced, leveled and parceled. I wonder exactly how the planting unfolded. Perhaps the apple trees required spirited dinner table deliberation about where to place them for maximum shade casting and which varieties would be best for the kids to eat straight off the tree. The purple iris, on the other hand, may have been popped into the land inattentively, yet perfectly patterned– like a squirrel buries food. I think about where they got the plants in a mid century Albuquerque– who were the city plant peddlers back then? What was the selection like?
Before I bought the lot, long after the Landwehrs were gone, I lived next door and watched it from a far. The man who followed the Landwehrs oriented himself towards the interior of the house, shuttering the windows and stumbling into the light only to apply thick coats of weed killer and turn on the occasional mid day spew from the sprinkler. The plants were clearly neglected, but the spirit of the garden was strong. I’d peer over the wall longing to explore the curious black orbs that hung from a distant tree (walnuts, I later found out), pick the misshapen pears and respond to the rotting grapes’ shout- “take me.”
When the chance came I bought the place. The grapes had grown into gangly, untended teenagers and the apples into cracked, weary grandparents. The walnut and the pear were thoroughly middle age, a bit frayed at the edges but carrying on. The peach was in hospice and in its last spring season it produced two giant orbs that burst like sunshine when I bit into them. Her dying gift was pure light- the finest peach I ever had.
Since that peach, 7 years ago, my family and I have tended this place through many hot and discouraging days, afternoons of invigorating gentle rain and harsh cold nights. We have brought her new fruit trees (thirteen at last count), a field of artichokes, an herb bed, a struggling raspberry patch, two currants and a gooseberry. The newest addition is a very happy nettle plant. A few plants have been removed (sorry juniper) and many have been nursed along. And when we seemed to be running out of space, we dug up the yellowing, water greedy front lawn and installed an enormous vegetable garden.
There is a place at the back of this front yard garden where five tree stumps sit in a semi circle around a lopsided stump table. The ground is covered by the lavender cuttings from last season. It is the magical place- where I sit and listen to the garden and rest my gangly, enthusiastic, befuddled gardener self. I invite you to join me. I’ll bring you lemon balm tea and ravioli stuffed with nettles and homemade cheese. Perhaps Roy and Sophia can join us there. Together we will greet people who amble by and smile at the vegetable patch, the neighborhood kids who steal 14 foot tall sunflowers and parade down the street, and the squirrels that fatten themselves on stolen walnuts. We will talk about when to harvest chiogga beets, how to prepare garlic scapes (and what they are) and the wonders of apricot pits in jam. We will laugh about planting tomatoes too early, debate frost dates, and chide ourselves for thinking we beat the squash bugs.
We will marvel at this little piece of desert.
Come, join me.
The backyard yard not long after we bought the house
The front yard shortly after we bought the house
The font yard now
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