Sunday, August 15, 2010


or When a Plan Comes Together...

I usually think that gardening is about hope, though lately I've been wondering if it isn't more about Master Narratives. But no matter what I think, my actual experience is that it's a leap in the dark.

My desert olive trees have olives, you see, so naturally I'm a bit confused.

One of my friends is fond of saying that we make our own realities, that our world is as much a product of our perceptions as it is of objective truths. I see this perspective playing out in the way I view my garden, and the ways its successes and failures are shoe-horned into a Master Narrative, an archetypal story—in this case, “It's all going according to plan.”

The desert olives are a case in point. They are among the plants I didn't really know much about when I put them in, although the same could be said for almost everything else in my garden. Even though I grew up in the west, I learned about perennial gardening in New York state and Vermont—antithetical regions to the high desert of Albuquerque. I designed my garden based on research into native plants, a lot of ideas from British gardening books, and (some) common sense.

In case you were wondering, research is not the same as experience. You can read all the right books, haunt the online forums, prowl the botanic gardens, question the people in the biggest, floppiest hats at your local garden center (strange but true fact: the people in big, floppy hats always know the most), etc., etc., but you don't really know what a plant will do until you know its life history in your garden. That is to say, you only really know what it will do once it has actually done it. The whole endeavor is a leap in the dark, a lesson in hope—but once it works, it's what you had planned on all along.

To return to the desert olive (Forestiera neomexicana). What I read in my books is that it is a large shrub or small tree with delicate leaves, golden fall color, and small, olive-like fruits that attract songbirds. The branches bend at unpredictable angles, giving mature trees distinct personalities and winter interest. They're deeply taprooted, so they are suitable for small spaces. I'd never seen one in action, so to speak, but they sounded perfect, so I planted three of them.

All according to plan...
Four years have passed since then. The first two were not easy, even for native plants that scoff at ease, as almost every single leaf on all three trees was eaten by leaf-rollers before the summer was half gone. I didn't know whether the trees would survive, but what do I know about New Mexican plants? They did, and even put on 18 inches of growth each year. They had grown enough by last summer that I could begin the gradual process of limbing them up. They're taking nice little shapes. The trunks are beginning to twist and bend. The leaves are even (mostly) still on the branches, well into August—I may actually see some fall color this year. And for the first time, the two female trees have fruit—enough to feed several birds several meals this winter. The trees are beginning to settle in, to thrive, to do what nature programmed them to do, to fulfill the Grand Plan built into their genetic code. And even though I'm just now finding out what that is, I am as full of “ta-da!” about it as they are.

Of course, one hopes when one plants trees that they will grow, leaf, and fruit—it's rather the point of trees. But telling the story, “My trees are doing just what I'd planned on them doing; my garden design is all working out” ignores the fact that my garden is on its fourth Master Plan in four years, that those three trees (and two bush cherries) are literally the only things still growing where I initially put them (if at all), that some of those unpredictably bending branches are shading what used to be direct-sun beds which will now need replanting, and that the finches have defoliated all the upper branches by perching in them so that they (the branches) look really silly.

All those things get brushed to the side, simply because the trees now have olives, and have done what desert olive trees (apparently) do. The failures, changes, re-thinkings, quirks, and disappointments are all recast as sketches, rough drafts, part of the learning process leading to this ultimate end. That's the story I tell.

But really, it was all just a leap in the dark.


  1. A garden that is finished, is dead. We wouldn't be gardenING if it was all plastic frozen just-so. The change is what makes it fun. Or creates new inspiration. Our little trees planted over three years seem to have suddenly woken up to Being Trees waving just over my head. Our birds have to make do with sharing the figs. Must plant some more bird fruit trees.

  2. I agree--the change is part of the pleasure. It's when I talk about it as if I'd expected it all along that I have to laugh at myself. :) Congratulations on the trees that are Being Trees! We tell our selves the "first year it sleeps, then it creeps, then it leaps" adage, but the leaping is always such a pleasant surprise when it happens. You must be a kind soul indeed to be willing to share figs...

  3. All of life really is a continual learning process. Last summer I was given one of those floppy hats. I'm not a 'hat person' but it is good to keep the sun off. Wish I had the ability to grow such plants, as I miss it here..very rocky and even my deer resistant plants have gotten eaten this year due to the drought here. I am fortunate to belong to a Wildflower and Native Plant Preserve that is local that I can enjoy. Your blog is lovely as it is like venturing out to a garden!

  4. Jan Lyn, I had assumed you were in a plant-grower's paradise out there! A drought must hit you all extra hard, and deer are such hungry critters. I lived in the Finger Lakes area of NY for a while and remember what (beautiful) pests they could be. The Plant Preserve sounds wonderfully Edenic--how lovely for you to have something like that locally!