Our largest garden area is not ours. It belongs to the State of California and forms the berm at the base of a freeway revetment across the street from our house. It seems to have been landscaped, originally, with a row of coast redwoods underplanted with ivy. But the irrigation system broke long before we moved here and the highway department, struggling with reduced funds, apparently decided that it was beyond repair. The row of redwoods is now reduced to three stragglers that can’t quite decide whether to live or die and are therefore trying to do both at once.
The poor things never had a chance without irrigation—not on a mix of wretched soil and rock, exposed to a full day of sun and sitting at too low an elevation for them to perform their great summer trick of distilling their own drink from the fog. Such ivy as still hangs on is straggly and scruffy. The rest of the space, was taken over by harsh grasses, thistles, fennel and other things that spread easily and survive harsh conditions. A crew would come by once a year to cut down anything over an inch tall, but by that time they had long since gone to seed and turned brown.
Our front windows thus looked out on a barren scene, occasionally adorned—at least from the perpetrators’ perspective—by graffiti. The noise of passing traffic on our busy street, redoubled by bouncing off the concrete wall, matched the visual barrenness. Having learned from local lore and our own experience that the state was not going to do anything to improve matters, Jon eventually began to take matters into his own hands. He noticed that squirrels or birds had been planting acorns directly across from our house and that those acorns had long been trying to turn into trees, only to be whacked back every year. He devoted himself to rescuing them.
There were many setbacks along the way. Often we were not at home when the crew came past. Even if we were, we found that crew leaders varied in their willingness to accommodate our project. Still, Jon eventually got one oak up to a size where it was legally a tree and could expect a little deference in this tree-loving city.
We added, over time, some spare aloes we happened to have. Several octopus agaves (Agave vilmoriniana) in our back garden bloomed and bestowed hundreds of pups on us—and some of those went across the street. I had a couple of other agaves in pots that I didn’t want to plant in our own garden because they were sure to take up too much space. They joined the migration. When we thinned our naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna), some of the bulbs went in. In doing all this, we inadvertently transported some nasturtium seeds, too. Meanwhile, our next-door neighbors contributed some prickly pear cacti.
All these plants depend entirely on rainfall for water—and that at a time of exceptional drought. All seem to be doing well. The cacti, in fact, seem intent on blooming this year, which several aloes and naked ladies have already done.
Our biggest step forward, however, came when Jon asked a tree trimmer who was working on the street behind us if he would be willing to dump his chippings along “our” stretch of berm. He was quite willing; after all, it stood to save him time and expense. We (mostly Jon) spread them along the slope where they have provided two great advantages. Everything we’ve planted over there looks much healthier and happier because the mulch is helping to retain what little moisture we’ve gotten. And the highway department crews, having decided that we really are taking care of the place, go quietly past on their annual visits.
And we have a much nicer view out our windows. Perhaps when the native oaks get a little bigger, they’ll even mute some of our street noise.