Monday, February 20, 2006

Roller coasters, tourists, and other hazards of gardening in Santa Cruz

Review of From the Ground Up by Amy Stewart (St. Martin's Griffith, 2002).

Every gardener's first garden is full of first-time miracles: the first time one sees bean seedlings elbowing their way up through the soil like rude children in a crowd; the first brilliant blossom of a cosmos grown from seed; the first taste of a tomato ripened in one's own patch of sun. Prosaic, everyday miracles, yet when a writer skillfully recalls them, the resonate with any garden addict.

Amy Stewart recalls her first garden in From the Ground Up which she scratches out of the hard earth around her rented bungalow in Santa Cruz. The garden looks down on the harbor and the amusement park, and the morning bird songs are accompanied by the rattle of the roller coaster. Her first attempts at poking plants in the ground (under the assumption that dirt is dirt, right?) meet with little success, but rather than give up as others have, rather than assume she's been cursed with a brown thumb, Stewart is determined to learn and succeed. She learns about compost; about scale and aphids; about "good" and "bad" bugs; about earthworm ranching and gopher repelling.

Through the course of a year, Stewart's intensive self-taught horticultural learning program takes her from "What happened to my poor plants?" to "What am I going to do with all these zucchini?" Along the way she introduces the reader to her two cats (the languid Gray and the zippy LeRoy), intrusive tourists (including a pair caught sunbathing on her front porch, unaware that people actually live in Santa Cruz), her gardening neighbors, her patient husband, and her wise great-grandmother.

Though it's not a garden how-to book, Stewart offers her own tips at the end of each chapter -- not that one can recreate a Santa Cruz bungalow garden without a Santa Cruz bungalow, but simply to pass some of her successes, or those of her gardening friends, on to her readers.

Sadly, all good things must end, and so does Stewart's time with her garden. She and her husband must move, and the garden must stay behind. With her, the reader says farewell to the geraniums, bougainvillea, and cosmos (adorned now and then by tourists' beer bottles), and hello to a new home and the promise of a new garden.

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