Virginia Woolf famously wrote that women writers need “A Room Of One’s Own,” a solitary place to plan, write, contemplate, relax, and dream, away from the distractions of everyday life. As a writer myself, I have created a Room Of My Own many times and in many places … after-hours classrooms, cafes, national parks, a friend’s attic, an extra bedroom, the front seat of my car, and the occasional weekend writer’s retreat overlooking the Pacific.
Writing is portable. Spiral notebooks, laptop computers, smart phones, iPads, and the Internet allow me to write wherever I am, which is one of the great things about being a writer. I have sat, paced, planned, and plotted at all hours of night and day. I have scribbled and edited, been published and paid, and received recognition and awards for my work.
When a piece of writing is completed, there is a sense of closure: when an item goes to press, the fat lady sings. The work is finished, done, complete. To continue writing means beginning the whole process over again, going all the way back to square one.
Gardening is not like that.
A garden is a work in progress, a story where we can change the characters, the plot, and the outcome as often as we like. I have gardened in pots and planters, in paper cups and pony packs, in flower beds, window boxes, and mason jars. I have gardened on apartment patios, porches, and balconies, in raised beds set on public school playgrounds, and — in the depths of winter — on windowsills, bathroom counters, and beneath my kitchen sink. Working in my garden is as creative and contemplative as any writing I have ever done.
For the past 27 years, I have gardened at our home in Bakersfield, California. Our first garden here was a strip of bare soil along the back fence — just large enough to hold a few tomato plants, some herbs, and a rambling zucchini — tucked away in a corner behind our bedroom. We couldn’t see the garden from our patio, kitchen window, or most parts of the yard, so we called it the Back Garden. Under 50 square feet, it was no match for the 300 square foot garden we had left behind in Los Angeles, and soon we would want more.
The following year, my husband expanded and framed that solitary garden bed with 1×6″ pine. Five or six years later — as a Mother’s Day gift to me — he added four fancy-looking raised beds, built of stacked landscape timbers, tripling our garden space. We covered the walkways with weed cloth topped with pea gravel, to reflect additional heat and extend our gardening season.
Hot weather plants love our desert heat: we grew hundreds of pounds of peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, beans, and herbs from March to November, companion planted with annual flowers. The back garden was secluded and sunny, and it fed us well for more than twenty years.
Twenty years is a long time in the plant world, especially in a suburban back yard. Herbs purchased in four inch pots become shrubs and hedges. Tender young saplings in neighbors’ yards grow like Topsy, becoming sprawling shade trees.
Suddenly — or so it seemed — half a dozen palm trees shaded the north side of our once-sunny garden. To the east, a pair of Italian cypresses and a 30 foot tall flowering pear tree blocked the morning and early afternoon sun. Shade trees in the main part of our backyard blocked most of the sun from the south, and by mid-afternoon, our house cast long shadows from the west.
What was once a sunny garden was now in partial or total shade all day long. After 20+ years of joyful gardening and healthy homegrown food, the Back Garden was no longer suitable for tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and other sun-dependent plants.
What to do? We had already squeezed herbs, eggplant, and peppers into our front yard landscaping, but that was all we could get away with, due to space and neighborhood norms.
In our neighborhood, yards are professionally landscaped and professionally manicured. Most back yards have an in-ground pool, and some have outdoor kitchens worthy of Architectural Digest. Children do not dig in the dirt — the youngest are in preschool or day care, and the others are too busy being driven to soccer practice, dance classes, and music lessons.
It almost goes without saying that we’re considered a little strange for having an organic garden in our own back yard. Almost.
Bakersfield is smack dab in the middle of Kern County, in the part of the southern San Joaquin Valley known as The Salad Bowl. Kern is California’s second-highest producing agricultural county, and agriculture is our number one industry.
More than one hundred edible crops are grown here, including carrots, table grapes, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, tomatoes, onions, garlic, watermelon and cantaloupe, citrus and stone fruits, asparagus, olives, fresh herbs, salad greens, wheat, and rice. At harvest time, the majority of those crops are trucked out of the county for processing, then are sent back to be sold in our local stores, days or weeks after they were picked.
That’s not the food my family wants to eat. To keep growing our own, we had to move the garden.
Due to the Bakersfield heat, the main area of our backyard — with a small patio and a large, thirsty, lawn — was rarely used. Our children were nearly grown, their backyard camp-out years well behind them, their Cozy Coupes, fort, and swing set long gone.
Without small children or pets, all that grass was a terrible waste of resources: time, energy, money, and water.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably guessed what comes next. In the spring of 2009, we built four brand new raised garden beds right on top of our back lawn, moving our garden into full view of the house, and back into the sunlight.
With nearly 40 years of gardening experience under my belt, this was a far cry from going back to square one, though it was certainly the beginning of a new chapter in our garden. The garden has expanded over the years, and we have grown along with it, becoming better gardeners, better cooks, and better people, inside and out.
How about you … where do you garden?