My Oakland Garden

seated next to the centered spiral

In the late 80’s it was a good idea to settle my ass down after a debaucherous run in San Francisco’s fast-paced art and nightlife scene.

I ended up in a little cottage in North Oakland behind four apartments. Without the distractions of city lights and easy vice, I put my hyperactive energy into a bland plot of lawn.

From the street, it was hidden, but by taking a few steps up, a few steps down a pathway, and then through a gate I would enter my retreat. A narrow sidewalk around the cottage and along the property line formed a long L. And there was a stoop that served as my surveyor’s perch for the next couple of years as I dug in.

The yard was approximately fifty feet by two hundred feet of mostly old grass and a few struggling bushes around the edges. There was a perimeter bed that was dense and deep with ivy and its notorious complex root structure. Over six months I dug up that web of the relentless vine. In some spots I probably went three feet deep to stem the invasion. I did save some as I went along. I had time to consider it and it became a living foundation for what would come.

There were also some hydrangea bushes. One blue-purple and the others pink. They ended up being quite showy and good producers. When I first found them they had stopped flowering much and were in need of some pruning to have a new start. I took it a step at a time.

Just outside of the entrance was a long-neglected Fuschia. After a brave edit, it flourished too.

I began the process with small experiments with pansies and such. I knew there was a lot I didn’t know. Undeterred, I kept going further and further with my trials. With little money to invest in the hobby I was careful to tend to the new starts that I did plant.

Each Saturday morning (after The Pee Wee Herman show), I’d take the bus down San Pablo Avenue to the East Bay Nursery. This mecca has been in operation since 1942. The staff guided me to my few purchases and were very generous with their advice. I’d catch the bus back home loaded with soil, bulbs, 6-packs of annuals, and my new obsession, tuberose begonias.

The begonias became the first endeavor with a tuber (a bulb of sorts). You place the bulb pod with about half in the soil and the rest just above the soil line. It took a leap of faith that this was how it all begins. Sure enough, the shiny spiral of leaves began and filled up the pot top with the promise of what would come. When begonias do flower they are a showy and colorful surprise.

Back to the greater task at hand, I dug out a spiral (more spirals) in the center of the yard and dug in some Gladiolas. I knew Glads promised a big display and they didn’t fail to deliver. At times they got so tall they’d fall over completely, but I was so attentive to every plant that I’d soon stake them up to get the most and tallest possible stems.

The spiral was a good laboratory for anything new I was trying out. I added bricks to outline the spiral and soon it was indeed the centerpiece of the garden.

The seasons, though mild in the bay area, started guiding my planting. By the second year, I started a vegetable patch for the summer in the sunniest corner of the lot. Oakland doesn’t have the fog of San Francisco and is often a full ten degrees warmer. So, with the sun and prime location, I had good luck with tomatoes and even some corn.

As for the lawn, I didn’t give it much attention besides some regular water and it did come back to life. I was always happy to mow it to keep things in order. I could at least make the rough edges a little cleaner. And the groomed lawn served as a nice background to the blooms.

Near the end of my time there, I celebrated my 30th birthday in the garden with friends and my new beau. My friends were all surprised and happy to find me more grounded and focused with my hands in the dirt. One friend gave me the Sunset Western Garden Book and I still have that copy, beautifully soiled from the years of use in the field.

To the new beau, the scene in Oakland was a hint to a future surrounded by never-ending gardens in wonderful places.