Was working in the garden today, and wondering what it would be like to not have a seemingly never ending list of gardening chores to do. I started with jackhammering a trench for a new pond though solid rock, still not done, maybe I’ll try and finish tomorrow. Andy was pruning some stuff, so I just told him to just put the debris in the truck. Before you know it, the Calliandra inaequilatera 'Alba' was opened up again and looked great. A golden leaved banana, Musa acuminata 'Tapo' was gone, it wasn’t cutting it for me, too much cleaning work and no fruit, just an ornamental. It leaves a empty spot for one of my new Iochromas, yes that is how gardeners brains work. Lots of old palm leaves filled in the middle section of the truck bed, and some African Gardenia (Gardenia volkensii) that was getting too thick near the house. Always nice to open that one up, it’s loaded with tillansias and orchids that look great mounted on it’s strong lateral branches. I didn’t know the species until I moved here, it looks similar to Gardenia thunbergia, but faster here and the flowers start cream, but then turn gold and with an unexpected Magnolia grandiflora fragrance. Then the Brugmansia x candida f. variegata 'Maya' got a big trim, along with the Cassia x neliae 'Queen's Hospital White', a stunning light cream yellow form of the rainbow shower tree, that was just above it. After four years here, the trees we planted are finally getting big, I needed the 12’ pole saw to get to the top bits. Oh yeah, and a Ylang-ylang vine, Artabotrys odoratissimus, we both decided we didn’t like, too many thorns, fragrant, but ultimately less than showy flowers, made the hit list. That topped the truck off and we headed to the green landfill up in Hilo, but before we left I noticed the new opened views in the garden, increased light getting in, and that did make me happy. A beautiful garden always comes with a price tag, usually sweat and more than a little dirt to wash off. Still got to finish that pond, but when I do, I know that I’ll like it, than I can finish the entry lanai, build that finch aviary, start of the entry gate pillars and wall, and oh yeah build the packing shed that’s been a bare slab for months. Still have plans to add a greenhouse out back, not for cold, but to keep rain off the plants, I know Hawaii is weird, and then finally maybe get to installing that big pond in the back. I think for most people it would seem overwhelming, and sometimes it feels that way to me too. But I’ve noticed that little by little it all gets done and the garden just gets better. It not for everyone, but that’s the point, it’s for us and those we get to share it with, it’s what we value. My mentor Sinjen always said there is no garden without a gardener and he’s right. And I actually like the process, if it were easy or fast it really wouldn’t be the same, you simply can’t buy a mature evolved garden the same way you can remodel a house. So I guess it’s back to the jackhammer tomorrow, no pain, no gain.
I've grown plants my whole life. When I was teenager I remember being fascinated at how Miracle Grow plant food greened up a swedish ivy (Plectranthus verticillatus) houseplant my mom had, and how coleus could be rooted just in water. My mom was a big gardener, and always had lots of flower gardens growing up. We lived in northern New Jersey, just outside New York City. I always looked forward to spring and visiting the local nursery to see what they had for sale. My first job, while still in high school was working in a local houseplant nursery, just doing grunt work, but I can still remember the smell of that greenhouse.
When a guidance counselor told me that when choosing a career, I could do something that I enjoyed for a living, I was surprised. I always thought work was a disagreeable thing you had to do, so you could make money to do the things you wanted to do.
For my final year of high school we moved to St. Pete, Florida. I loved the tropical plants, but thought the winter was still too cold for me. After high school my sister was moving to San Antonio, Texas and wanted to know if I wanted to come along, I was intrigued by a new adventure and said yes. I was there for two years, I got a job making $3.65 an hour ball and burlaping trees, it was hard work, but I loved it. I learned a lot about gardening in the southern United States. Fell in love with Texas mountain laurels (Sophora secundiflora), crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica), southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), and mesquite trees (Prosopis velutina). Not so much love for the caliche soil and fire ants.
I spent the next year back east, prepping for college while working in a large nursery in Morristown, New Jersery. It had a outside nursery, Lexington Gardens, but also a large state of the art greenhouse for retail. There I was surrounded by fellow plant lovers, who really inspired me with their passion and encouraged me to a have good tools, like my Felco #2 pruners that I still use today.
After looking at different college offering a degree in horticulture, I ended up in Tucson, Arizona at the University of Arizona. They have a great program, I'd never been to Arizona, but the desert sounded interesting. In Arizonia I took all the basic courses, but also some really great plant focused classes. My plant materials class was taught by well know landscape architect Warren Jones right before he retired in 1984. What a gift for a young student. He wrote the book on dry climate gardening, Plants For Dry Climates, still a staple of the desert trade. Not only was he a great plantsman, but was a expert on how to use those plants in the landscape. His principles of integrating the architecture of the structure into the surrounding landscape with a clear sense of place was a mind opening concept for me. I had always thought that landscaping was imposing your will on nature, not working with it. It changed me in a profound way.
As much as I loved the desert, it still wasn't enough for me, I set my sights on the west coast, the southernmost point, San Diego, Californi. California was a wonder for me, It was colder at night then I had imagined, being a coastal desert. Still, the amazing variety of plants that could be grown their was mind boggling. I could grow quite a few of my desert plants, and all the new California natives, a surprising number of the more cool temperate plants I grew up with, and a door wide open to an stunning selection of tropicals. Always one to push the zonal boundaries I lost a few plants to cold winters, salty water (San Diego tap comes from the somewhat saline Colorado river) and low humidity. But still with a lot of microclimate modification, the range was very very satisfying. The first 10 years in San Diego I worked at Mission Hills Nursery, working my way up from waterboy to store manager. As a young man of 22, I was lucky enough to be befriended by older German man named Sinjen, local landscape legend, at that time already in his 70's. The first time I delivered plants to a Sinjen garden, my concept of what a landscape could be was forever changed. Naturalistic style, using plants sized for the location and laced out (an artistic pruning technique) for good light and air circulation. His gardens never had any grass and all required minimal maintenance, but had incredible artistry and depth. I never looked back.
After the nursery, I started my own small landscape company and starter nursery, to grow the plants I needed for jobs. All the ones popularized by Sin, like Calliandra surinamensis, Hollywood Plum (Prunus), and landscape Bromeliads, like Neoregelia. Before long the nursery grew, to a half acre in Encinitas California, eventually I ended up in Vista, California and expanded to three acres wholesale nursery. The collection grew to over 4,000 taxa with display gardens to highlight the plants. After 10 years in Vista, the garden matured, business flourished, we even had a gardening show on local cable for four years. But for me San Diego had changed, traffic was worse, the trend was toward mow, blow, and go landscapes. The drought was in it's eighth year and water was scarce, the economy was down. The final straw was a killer frost in 2007, I lost over 1,000 taxa in one week and over $100,000 of nursery stock, even plants in the hoop houses froze. On that day Hawaii became the goal.
In Sin's last days I want to see him in hospice, he was 92, and we talked. I asked him about regrets, and he said the only thing he wished he had done was move to Hawaii. He had been many times, loved the tropical climate, and like me had a passion for tropicals, but stayed in San Diego. I was scared, but wanted to follow my dreams and move to Hawaii. My husband Andy and I made plans to leave California after almost 30 years, and make the jump to the Big Island called Hawaii. We arrived in the summer of 2009.
Moving to a new place with no contacts was no easy feat. And we're still adjusting, but happy to have made the move. My new one acre tropical jungle, lets me grow all kind of plant I used to just dream of. The mail order nursery is up and running, and our new garden is maturing quickly. It's an odd thing to have plentiful rain, good quality water and a year round warm climate. I am probably going to stay put, but I know I'm alway looking forward to the next plant.