Chaos Theory Applied in Garden

The tranquility trees are blooming. I’ve been training the one closest to the courtyard to drape like an arch at the entry. Anyone who comes to our house gets to walk under this arbor. I think this is why people are generally friendly by the time they reach our front door. This season the draping branches hang over the stone wall Joe and I built out of river rock, red round stones we collected from here and there. This morning the tree branches are blushed with tiny yellow blossoms. I wrote about these trees last August when the blooms had already turned into the hard smooth seed pods. I wrote about our courtyard last September, but the picture in that post doesn’t show the branches of the tree draping over the wall. It hadn’t gotten that far when I took the picture.

So today, I’m discovering a dilemma with blogging. I have to remember what I write about, so I can always offer something new. This could get sketchy.

Today the bit of news is that these  trees are the reason we redid our front yard.We were given six of them to test out from a local nursery and they were sitting in their wooden boxes on our old driveway. It was summer and the only way to keep them alive was to hand water them. This was my job, because my husband works a lot and my children don’t like the out doors as much as I do, especially in the summer when it’s well over a hundred degrees. I like watering plants, because it’s a meditative kind of thing to do and I’m a terrible meditator. Watering makes me feel as Zen as I’ll ever be. But watering six large trees in the dead heat of summer is too much Zen.

So I innocently said, “we should plant these trees.”

And my husband didn’t say “sure, we could do that.”

Instead he drew up a plan and showed me the drawing. We talked about little revisions that I can’t recall, but making them allowed me to feel like I had some hand in the final design. And I’m fuzzy on the order in which things unfolded from there. I remember a huge pile of sand sat in front of the house for so long the neighboring kids thought of it like a small playground. A ditch deep enough to bury a few horses cut across the yard in an arc all through the rainy season and filled with water enough to resemble a muddy pool. My son played in it until he looked like he was made from clay. A fireman friend came by to put in a steel header shaped like a giant egg to contain the grass we planned to keep. Walls went up. Sprinklers were installed.

Then my husband came home driving a front-end loader and broke the driveway apart by catching the concrete slab in the loader’s teeth and lifting it high in the air. Then he let it drop so it could crack into flagstone-sized pieces. There were many weeks of setting the broken concrete to form a new drive and fill in the courtyard.

Then we planted the tranquility trees.

Two years may have gone by during all this mess making, but time has a way of flowing past me in immeasurable streams, so maybe it was three. It doesn’t matter now. The trees are blooming and beginning to look like they’ve always been here.

clustered bloom of the tranquility tree

clustered bloom of the tranquility tree


Green Room

I didn’t know the name for it at the time, but my dream bedroom growing up was a courtyard. When I spoke of it, I would describe how the ceiling could be pushed aside like a sheet and open the room to the sky. Or how the floor was made of earth, so plants could grow free from the confines of pots. I would sleep in a hammock draped from trees. Of course, my favorite story book was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I wanted my room to sprout like Max’s, only more so. His was a tidy forest full of unruly monsters. My imaginary bedroom had walls built to keep out the monsters while I slept. I still suggest cutting holes in the concrete floor slab of my home from time to time to plant a garden. My husband, a practical man, usually counters with bugs, knowing he can keep the discussion brief and in his favor if I am made to think about bugs. “Besides, the plants prefer living outside,” he’d add, knowing I always go along with any plan a plant would prefer. It’s true too. Air-conditioned desert houses make lousy plant habitats.

So instead we’ve built a courtyard in the front of our ranch style house with a floor cobbled from the old driveway concrete. When we ran out of our supply, a neighbor let us pick through the remains of his old driveway before trucking it off to the dump. The trees just outside the courtyard have been extending farther each year, fashioning a ceiling from their canopies that fills with leaves each spring and shades the court and then drops the foliage in winter to let the slant sun in. A better system then the sheet I imagined as a kid. Unlike my dream bedroom, this garden court has walls only three feet high, enough to hide the cars parked on the street and give the plants shelter. The fountain echoes against these low walls, masking the traffic that hums along a busy street nearby. We built a wall and bench from river rock unearthed when we tore up the drive, remnants of a landscape design buried under sixty years of dust. When those stones ran out, another neighbor let us quarry his fake dry stream that ran through his front yard in exchange for trimming his tree. I’d revise the old edict twice quoted in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” to say that good gardens make good neighbors.

My childhood dream bedroom emerged from an early love of plants, a desire to make my room into a habitat for things with roots. Perhaps that’s the attraction, the roots. How plants, for the most part, figure ways to stay put. A few species drift about in water, but most plants anchor themselves to the earth and then make do with what comes their way. I admire that level of commitment, especially in trees since they outlive everyone. The oldest living thing on earth is a tree, the ancient bristlecone pines that cling to the rugged slopes of the Inyo range in Eastern California. Methuselah, the eldest in this forest of ancients is thought to be nearly 5,000 years old. Groves of clonal trees, vegetation’s version of the Borg, have had their DNA traced back twice that long, but as single living things the bristlecones take the longevity prize.

The last time I had a chance to walk among these old trees, I carried my daughter on my hip. I was making the final field visits while finishing my book A Land Between and had brought my daughter since she was still nursing. My husband had built a corral of sorts in the back of my truck to keep her from crawling off while I wrote in the field. It might have worked had she not just learned to scramble out of her crib and been actively seeking any and all opportunities to hone her free-climbing skills. When I carried her along the bristlecone trail, she waved at each old tree we passed. Much more social than I can ever hope to be, my daughter recognized a life akin to her own in these trees and so greeted them as friends.

That was nearly fifteen years ago, a blink for Methuselah. I’m more treelike these days, tending to linger in one place and make do. It’s my daughter now who conjures her own dreamscapes, one’s far away in exotic places like Sweden, where unbeknownst to her the oldest clonal tree, a spruce named Old Tjikko, has lived for nearly 10,000 years. My daughter has outgrown waving hello to old plants, adolescents have far more subtle greeting gestures, but it gives me comfort to know she dreams of places friendly to trees nonetheless.

on a day before the dichondra decided it was too hot, image by me