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Cultivate



This time of year I always go on my favorite hike, I call it the Best Hike in Northern California, or "Best Hike" for short. It has 4 distinct landscapes that are all different: a shady grove, then rolling green hills. After that a deep redwood forest, and finally an open field of chaparral. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to walk through each section. You go up and then down, and it's also a big loop. I hate in and out hikes.


In late April to early May the wildflowers are popping on this trail: carpets of forget-me-nots, lupine, larkspur, California poppies, trillium, allium, and others whose names I don't know. There is even a very rare orchid that I have spotted on the trail several times.


There is one part in the rolling green hills section slightly off trail where there is the perfect picnic and nap spot, and you can see San Francisco way off in the distance. Did I mention that this is on the coast so you can see the ocean as well? The trails are closed in the county where my favorite hike is located and it's killing me that I'm missing it this year. I feel like I'm missing part of spring. This is a small thing, but my mind keeps wandering back to this trail-- what are the flowers doing, have they started to fade already, and is there any way to sneak over there and hike this trail without getting into trouble? Finding a place to park without getting a ticket in this small and highly monitored community would be difficult.


All of this is making me feel restless. I know that I'm just part of the restless zeitgeist, there is a general air of "fuck this" in the Bay Area right now as the weather continues to warm up. I have channeled this restless need to be in nature toward my own garden, my easiest access point. Early on this year I decided not to start or put in any new flowers, but to just see what came up on its own and work with that. I like to plant flowers that re-seed easily, like poppies, bachelor button, cosmos, zinnia, sweet peas, love-in-a-mist, and forget-me-not, as well as many natives that only need a speck of dirt and a drop of water to get going. And I like perennials that can overwinter or come back in the spring, like jasmine, coreopsis, verbena, Santa Barbara daisy, and butterfly bush.


This year the yard is heaving with flowers, the sidewalk in front of the house is overwhelmed in a slightly obnoxious way, as is the walkway up to our front porch. I love it. My only job is to keep the weeds out of the way, and cultivate what is there. I've always wanted this kind of garden: wild, lush, slightly overrun, full of color and texture. No grass. I've never quite been able to pull it off, I always have spots that didn't quite go the way I imagined. But this year it seems just leaving things alone yielded exactly what I wanted. Well, I didn't quite leave things alone--and this was really hard for me-- I had to pull a lot of baby plants because there were just too many. I've learned that if you let every last thing grow that volunteers you will often wind up with plants that can't thrive to their full potential. It's a necessary culling.


The garden centers around here are one of the businesses that are doing well in the pandemic, which is right and good. With their ransacked shelves and long long lines of people, it seems that everyone has taken up gardening this spring, if all the newly dug front yard vegetable gardens I see in my neighborhood are any indication. I had to run some tests on older basil seeds I had stored rather than face the chaos of a nursery or wait for seed catalogs to re-stock. I have 20 seedlings sprouted now and I will share the extras with people in my community and my gardener friends.


It took me many false starts to become a gardener, years of putting plants into the ground, only to soon forget all about them until it was too late. I had to learn how to hold sustained attention over many weeks and months, returning to the garden day after day to cultivate what I planted. To do this, I had to learn to be satisfied with the smallest signs of progress, to look for the new growth every day, pay attention to the details. This is a great skill to hone while we are all learning new things during the pandemic. It's not easy, at first. It's hard to believe that anything will come of this, this green thing in the ground. Patience and faith, every gardener has to cultivate this within themselves to be able to grow anything. Also, hard work. Gardening is some serious physical labor.


Tell me about what you're bringing sustained attention to and cultivating these days. What do you bring your patience and faith to?

Have you read Novella Carpenter's book Farm City yet? It's not a new book, but if you haven't read it, you must. Farm City came to my attention when it was published because it is about urban farming in a neighborhood adjacent to my own(former) Oakland neighborhood, and I am connected to several people who are connected to the author. This book is so delightful, and fully and richly documents the absolute joy of growing things. As someone who often goes overboard on things, I identified with Novella's overreach with her garden-turned-small farm, her problem-solving tenacity, and obsession with using a small piece of land to its full growing capacity.


I was reminded of Novella because I subscribe to her rarely updated blog and was alerted to a new post the other day just as I was getting started on writing this. She linked to an article she wrote about gardening with kids that I thought would be an inspiration to parent types who are desperate for ways to keep the kids engaged in three-dimensional real life. Also, the tips she offers are good for new gardeners of all ages, not just children and teens. And the article is part of the Sierra Club's online magazine, which is interesting all on its own.


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