Silence which, in breaking up at dawn,
will speak differently.
Juan Ramon Jimenez
When we first moved to this hillside in the summer of 2001, we knew we wanted a garden, but had few ideas about the matter more detailed than that. No one had cared about the yard for quite a number of years, that was evident, for it was little but a sea of weeds from the back of the house to the fence, with a gate in the middle of it, that lies about thirty feet downhill. Below that, as far as we could tell, it was nothing but a tangle of blackberries and Scotch broom for perhaps another hundred feet or more to the bottom of the property. The blackberry jungle was so dense that the gate would barely open, and if you stepped through it onto what looked like the remains of a step, you plunged perilously into a frightening realm of fierce thorns and matted vines. We gradually cleared most of the weeds from the back door to the gate and eventually started visiting nurseries.
California natives were our first enthusiasm, and we found a splendid place in the remote hills outside of Woodside which specialized in them. In went three miniature manzanitas, a California tassel tree, a coffeeberry, a chocolateberry vine, hollyhocks, California irises, monkeyflowers and various delicate ferns. These were grouped around the few plants we had found beneath the weeds: a stunted and unpruned cotoneaster, an enormous phormium, a clump of leafy and pink-flowered bergenias. So far, so good. Most of these plants have survived, though the little manzanitas died early deaths from all the condensed fog dripping on them nearly continually from a neighbor’s enormous cypress tree overhead. We lost several small rhododendrons we had driven many miles to adopt. Most of the passion vines we planted on the supports of the upstairs deck have thrived but never flowered. Over the years we have added many other plants, most of them still flourishing, to this upper garden: rare primulas and hellebori, even rarer gentians mail-ordered from alpine specialists in Canada, South African grasses, sedums, black bamboo, a Channel Island snapdragon and a collection of vireya rhododendrons in porcelain pots from Vietnam. We were told the vireyas were very hard to grow, but we’ve only lost one. They flower magnificently.
Meanwhile, the lower garden languished for a year or two. Then one afternoon, as I gazed at the whole maddening thicket from the upstairs deck, I became thoroughly furious that it had vanquished us for such a long period of time. I put on heavy clothing, ready to do battle, armed myself with garden shears in various sizes, headed down the steps and pushed my way through the gate. The tunnel I cut through the dense blackberries to the bottom of the hill that day was our beginning in taming the rest of the yard. Over the next several months the whole hillside was cleared, but we eventually hired some people to come in and haul out the vegetative debris. It was a horrendous task, during which I’d lie in bed at night in the dark and see nothing but blackberry vines and thorns before my eyes.
Gradually then, in a process which took several more years, we built steps, retaining walls and planters, the whole area being otherwise so steep that getting around it, let alone planting anything, was nearly impossible. Hundreds of plants, from nurseries nearby or from thousands of miles away, were adopted and given permanent homes: perhaps thirty varieties of rhododendrons, South African silver trees that arrived in one gallon pots and are now nearly thirty feet high, daylilies, Pride of Madeira, primulas, blue puyas from South America, marmalade bushes from Chile, leucodendrons and leucospermums from South Africa, hydrangeas from Japan and tree ferns from Australia and New Zealand, various types of California buckwheat, trees from near the Cape of Good Hope whose purple flowers smell like grape Kool Aid, a small herb garden of sages and oreganos and thymes, and many more whose names I’d have to hunt down to list. We have lost plants down there, and the digital photos we took of them in their lovely and hopeful young days soon after arrival are difficult for me to look at, because they are reminders of such happy days. I feel I failed them somehow, and perhaps I did. Or perhaps some of them were just unsuited to the conditions.
The square patio you see in the photo above was something which took years to construct. We didn’t want to pave it until we were sure the earth would not settle and force us to redo the whole thing. It was built on the exact site of a children’s playhouse which, as an elderly neighbor below us says, was built decades ago and gradually fell apart. Another neighbor at the bottom of the hill told us he used to sit at his desk at the back of his house and watch raccoons and squirrels go in and out of the broken windows of the playhouse before it eventually disintegrated completely. We were going to put a glassed-in gazebo there but later realized it would be nicer as a place to sit and relax in the open air. You can see the South African silver trees at the top center of the picture.
I’ve included the quote from the Spaniard Juan Ramon Jimenez here because it somehow reminds me of how this garden sprang into existence when we came. That silence of a non-existent garden, as it were, which broke up and began to speak differently with our arrival. I’ve seen pictures of this hillside taken in the 1930’s. It was completely barren, except for some dry grass. With us, it acquired an entirely new life, but a few months of neglect of the garden–as has happened this year in the wake of the terrible loss of our beloved elderly dog and the adoption of three very busy puppies–reminds me that it can easily revert to nature. And when we ourselves are no more one day, and the silence breaks up at the dawn of somebody else’s new era on our hillside, how will that silence speak differently? What will remain of our garden then? I don’t like to think of it, but as the days tick by I do more and more. And when I do, I usually run outside to say hello to the plants, to reassure them we’re still around. Each one is a friend.