Of natural gardening and diplomacy


    The Fire Department has posted signs all over this mountain warning that the absolute deadline for brush clearance is June 9. In spite of late rains and many May nights with temperatures just above freezing, fire danger will be extreme, fire officials say.

    I believe them. After several years of drought, dead brush needs to be cleared away, as it would be by a natural wildfire.

    My place is about a mile west of I-5 at the top of the Grapevine and at the northeastern edge of the Los Padres National Forest. Though we’re not in a traditional fire corridor, we’ve been threatened by half a dozen wildfires since 1961, most of which started along the highway.

    We’ve lost no homes or barns, only fencing, rabbit brush and the yuccas the cowboys call century plants, because their towering flower spikes appear so infrequently. In a brush fire, these plants virtually explode, like Roman candles sending showers of sparks in the air, igniting new areas of brush. This must be their hundredth year because there are more of them than I’ve ever seen.

    The brush clearance edict has prompted dozens of enterprising young men to help homeowners clear their property. One team was hired early to clear the areas around the old ranch house and barns. Three guys with two mowers and two weed whackers worked several days and reduced the whole place to browning stubble.

    When they finished, they drove up the canyon to offer to do the same to my hillsides. Now, I admit to a certain amount of procrastination in this yearly weeding business, mostly because I can’t bear to mow down the wildflowers. And this year they were, and still are, absolutely magnificent.

    After a walk-about with the head weed honcho, we agreed on a price, $375 to weed-whip a six-foot swath around the perimeter fencing and on both sides of the driveway and about a half acre around the old oak that supports the kids’ tree house and tire swings. My concern here was more to eliminate rattlesnake cover than fire fuel. The old tall trees have their own fire protection, providing shade and moisture to the grasses below. It’s strange that government bureaucrats seem to think logging tall, old trees, destroying the canopy, would protect our forests from wildfire.

    Anyway, with some trepidation, I made the deal with the weed whippers. Two guys, wielding string trimmers (my place is too steep for mowers) appeared last week and whacked down the fire fuel and snake cover, cleverly avoiding several patches of poppies, lupine and blue-flowering horse nettle. I was impressed.

    The trade-off is I have to weed inside the perimeter fences. By hand, if I want to preserve the abundant wildflowers and volunteer seedlings of yarrow, blue flax, feverfew, Spanish lavender, alyssum, evening primrose, columbine and centranthus ruber, all of which proliferated on their own from just one or two nursery-bought plants and a handful of flaxseed. The flax never grew where I planted it years ago, and I thought quail and other birds that feed there had eaten the seed. Then suddenly it was springing up everywhere else, moved by the birds or the wind to more nurturing spots.

    City gardens allow for no such serendipity. They have a place for everything, usually decided on a blueprint by a landscape architect or nurseryman, and everything must stay in its proper place. Seedlings, even desirable ones, popping up in the wrong place are yanked or hoed or poisoned. Not so here.

    While I was carefully pulling dry foxtails and brome, I noticed something odd. The poppies, some of them waist high, were using the tough grasses for support, just as the evening primrose leaned on the taller flax and ruber. The “weeds” made shade to cool the root zones, nourished the soil and provided a perfect seedbed for native clarkia, their delicate violet pink flowers just beginning to open. When I pulled out the weeds, the poppies fell over and looked really sad. But if I just clipped or pulled off the dried out seed heads, the poppies remained tall and strong, the support system prevailed.

    When I was young, just learning to garden, I believed all weeds had to be exterminated or they would take over the entire garden. I even noticed that some weeds grew alongside look-alike plants, some kind of biological camouflage. In those days, I was of a more militant persuasion and bought into the prevailing domino theory of communist takeovers. If we didn’t quash communist regimes, they would soon take over the world, even, gulp, America the Land of the Free. In the name of safety we tolerated a vicious purge of suspected communist sympathizers in the entertainment industry. The sorriest era in our short history.

    By the early ’60s, I was beginning to lean toward peaceful coexistence. Nuclear proliferation and test ban treaties seemed like a good idea. I didn’t know communism would eventually implode of its own failings.

    Now in my dotage, I see people and plants as all different, though in some ways their needs are similar. I no longer see the differences, the opposites, in the world and in nature. Living things just are what they are, not innately good or evil, just survivors of their environment, even if sometimes they grow in inconvenient places.

    Garden Philosophy 101, a prerequisite for diplomacy? Couldn’t hurt.