By Pam Linn

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Spring back-breaking renewal

Visitors from all over the country who fell in love with California and decided to stay must have arrived soon after the Vernal Equinox. They would have been charmed by the green hills sprinkled with wild orange poppies and purple lupine. Live oaks and willows just beginning to leaf out, spring just busting out all over.

In late March even the desert looks inviting with carpets of flowers in three shades of yellow from pale butter to deep gold. California was a real estate agent’s dream in the days when there was a flourishing market for modest houses on lots carved out of orange groves. Warmed by a not-too-blazing sun, cooled by a gentle breeze, spring is a peaceful time: no wildfires, no floods, no landslides and no drought. Those come later, with increasing frequency and ferocity.

This spring, I leave Montana in a snowstorm that turns to rain somewhere in Idaho with sunshine breaking through clouds near the border with Utah. From there to Brigham City I see more cows than people. Salt Lake City, as usual, is a nightmare of traffic on a web of freeway overpasses, but southward it’s back to cows all the way to red rock country, where the signs point to Zion National Park and Lake Powell.

In late March, there are enough daylight hours to reach St. George, the setting sun lighting up red cliffs overlooking what is still a remarkably pretty town. In the morning, I leave just after sunrise, to enjoy the dramatic rock formations of the Virgin River Gorge, that little sliver of Arizona wedged between Utah and Nevada.

From there on, there’s nothing much to see unless one is enchanted by the brassy glass towers of Las Vegas. I’m not, so I stop at Starbucks back in Mesquite at the bottom of the gorge. From that point on it’s barren and boring, my sanity saved only by audio books, this time, “In a Sunburned Country,” Bill Bryson’s adventures in Australia.

Generally, I time this spring trip to coincide with Easter week when my grandkids are out of school, but last year Easter was three weeks too early and winter was still howling.

Now, encouraged by blooming daffodils and grape hyacinth, my daughter Susan wants to clean up the yard. When I first planted it, drought had become the norm and I nixed her wish for a lawn. So we have mostly blue gramma grass dotted with California native trees and shrubs. My priorities are little to no watering or mowing. Susan’s priorities have changed since I am no longer the resident gardener.

She greets me with the Burgess Seed & Plant Co. catalog in tow. Her current mission is to plant hardy ground cover that will choke out weeds. Been there, done that. Rosemary, a vigorous grower with bright blue flowers most of the year, will actually cover everything, overwhelming weaker plants along with the weeds.

Burgess claims that crown vetch (Coronilla varia), periwinkle (Vinca minor), Mother of Thyme (Thymus p. Coccineus) and something called Snow on the Mountain (Aegopodium) will do the same thing. Susan is thrilled. I am dubious.

There are also several bare spots where trees were killed by a wildfire, and some shrubs have died of undetermined causes. Drought? Puppies? Gophers? Anybody’s guess. From the catalog, we choose replacements: Spirea, Weigela, Buddleia.

Susan whips out the laptop and places an order for almost 200 plants. She assures me that Burgess is a reliable company. I assure her that planting 100 periwinkles, no matter how small, is a lot of work. She goes out and starts digging.

My granddaughter Amy helps. She tells her mom, “Don’t dig there. That’s going to be a lupine.” Smart kid. When you garden in the mountains, all gifts of nature are welcome.

Amy wants strawberries and lettuce. I tell her I’ll buy starter plants to fill the strawberry pot and some self-watering containers that she can care for. Meanwhile, we walk up the fire road and she shows me where she found wild miner’s lettuce growing. We pick some for a salad. My six-year-old naturalist is elated.

After some close inspection of the dead and dying shrubs, I decide gophers are the main culprits. Something must be done before the new plants go in. Trouble is, I don’t kill things anymore. Good grief, I don’t swat flies or step on ants. I even relocate spiders.

In the garage I find my old gopher-gassing apparatus. I will show Susan how to attach it to her car’s exhaust pipe and place the hose into the gopher runs. I rationalize: This isn’t gophercide, it is just harassment, encouraging the rodents to find a more suitable home outside the limits of the garden.

Burgess will be shipping our plants within two weeks. Susan hopes they arrive before I have to leave. I figure we have two weeks to do about two months worth of hard labor. Amy’s school essay will be “What I Did on Spring Break.”

And I’ll be leaving California before the glorious green hills turn brown, taking my sore muscles back to Montana to play in the snow.