I spent the afternoon cleaning my patio, repotting plants, watering, feeding, weeding. Tending plants is like a holy calling for me, a passion that has been infused in my blood by generations of avid gardeners. My great grandfather, an attorney from Pennsylvania, arrived in Los Angeles in 1880. He practiced law in downtown LA, but lived in a beautiful home in South Pasadena. I don't know much about his early life back east, but once he came to California, he became a passionate plantsman. He even got in on California's new orange industry, owning many acres of orange groves. He passed his love of gardening on to his son, my grandfather, and he to his daughter, my mother.
My father's parents hailed from Finland, where winters may be iced and frigid, but summertime centers around gardening, fresh fruit and flowers and the great out-of-doors.
As a result of this predisposition to pamper plants, my parents and their siblings surrounded their own homes with spectacular yards and gardens. They were intuitive master gardeners, fashioned from a lifetime in Southern California. Their knowledge was obtained not through a formal education, but through extensive field work, as it were, while on bended knee, tapping into the zen wire that exists between plant, and man, and earth.
For instance, they grew dichondra, not lawn.
Dichondra is a groundcover looks like teeny tiny lilypads, and when you get 60 bajillion of them, they carpet the ground in an exquisite, uniform, beautifully textured green. It's almost impossible to grow, but with an obsessive diligence, it can be done.
Oh - but you can't walk on it. And any animals in the neighborhood can sully large patches of it with just one tinkle. Children will cause it to shrivel and turn brown if they so much as look at it. It has a propensity for attracting tenacious insects that, once established, are locked in a death-match, pest vs gardener, for many months, until only one combatant emerges as the victor.
Why, oh why would anyone even bother with dichondra? To normal folk like you and me, it seems as though they beg for trouble, taunt fate, dare themselves to fail. But you don't know my family. They grew it because they could. By god, they made it look easy to attain perfection. (These are the same people who installed white carpet in the family room - and it stayed white.)
My grandfather also grew other horticultural wonders, like dinnerplate dahlias - with blooms that were literally the size of dinnerplates. The 12" - 14" blooms grew like fantasy pompoms in saturated jewel tones. His beefsteak tomatoes were the size of softballs, and could suffice as fruit of the gods.
My other grandma, a dichondra-lovin' little lady in her own right, had a green thumb as well. I loved, most of all, the yard surrounding the home where my father grew up. It had a clothesline where she would hang bedsheets until they smelled like a clean blue breeze and the garden itself, even when I pulled them around me in bed at night.
She had fruit trees -figs, apricots, peaches, plums, oranges - and a sea of alyssum. There were tall, crisp sword ferns next to the house; cool moss grew in deep shade below tender calla lilies. Flowers and vegetables were corraled in neat, orderly beds.
All this is to say that my genetic code, begat from these influences, has been distilled into a love of growing things, a need for plants and flowers, and an easy, fourth-generation Southern California knack for cultivation. While I do not share the pure precision-gardener gene my elders possessed (maybe it skipped a generation), I am equally as fervent as they about creating my personal landscape - it's just a bit, well, looser.
I have grown bananas, bamboo, bougainvilla. Deutzia, daphne, distictus. Jasmine and jacaranda, passiflora, pelargonium and zingiber. For ten years, I tilled a half-acre of land, and grew trees and shrubs and vegetables, and dinnerplate dahlias of my own. Throughout my life, no matter how little or how much outdoor space I had, I grew a garden.
But none of that prepared me for the world of bonsai.
About two years ago, my parents asked me to attend some bonsai classes with them. My first thought was, "Oh, great. Like my life isn't already boring enough - now I'm going to take up some geriatric hobby on Saturdays, too?"
But, thankful for an opportunity to spend time with the fam, I agreed. I was prepared to hate it.
Everything I thought I understood about growing plants was turned upside down. None of the rules, none of the conventional gardening wisdom applied. I was mystified, entranced, and soon, I was hooked.
John Naka was the world's undisputed Bonsai master until his death in 2004. He said, "What I like about bonsai is that it has a beginning, but no end. A bud today becomes a branch tomorrow. It is like searching for the rainbow's end; the farther it is pursued, the farther away it is."
I had never before looked at the way an old tree's roots flare and buttress with the earth - nebari. I had seen, but not really noticed the sharp, dead remnants of storm or wind damaged branches that rise from living trees - jin. I had never studied the way that age twists and arranges branches, and lowers them from years of life weighting them down. The way that age changes living things, as represented by trees.
Through the sage and accomplished gardeners in the bonsai classes, and the members of the Santa Barbara Bonsai Club, I am learning about observation in a new way. The approach is completely unprecedented in my experience - I am an absolute novice. My previous experience is of almost no use. My perception still unsure and tentative - I continuously question myself. I guess wrong. Then, once I am tutored, coached a bit, given a little slice of advice - I can see. It is thrilling.
I have come to know that my classmates, my teachers, my fellow club members, are the elite of California bonsai history. Many of them are also native Californians whose families owned nurseries here in the 30s and 40s. They were some of the first to introduce bonsai to California, and even to the United States. And my fellows, my friends, have developed the art, and the supporting bonsai society structure in California. They grow, and share, and show, and educate. They have nurtured and expanded a living tradition.
And I'm learning that a bud does become a branch, and with a well-placed wire, or snip of the shears, I can affect it's future movement, its direction. I can see the large world, miniaturized in a tiny slip of a tree that looks a hundred years old. I found that although the tree itself may literally be over 100 years old, with proper care of the roots, renewing them, keeping them youthful and pliant - the whole system can grow, well, who knows how long? Some bonsai trees are 200 - 300 years old.
It's a beautiful lesson in humility, one that I obviously craved. It's an opportunity to see myself in relation to the grand scheme of things; I'm reminded to stay right-sized. That is where health resides, that is where growth is sure, and beauty attained.
My long lovely patio is full of tiny little trees and flowering vines, reminders that life may have a beginning, but really, it has no end....