Recovery Garden


 The Jewel Box, One Year Later

The Jewel Box, One Year Later

This week I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of our garden with a post-chemo post I wrote last year:

I’ve long dreamed of an English country garden–roses spilling over trellises, beds layered with delphinium and hollyhocks, velvety lawns sweeping down to the pond. But we live in California, not in a BBC period drama, and our budget is not as outsized as my fantasy. Even if it were, there is no way our deer-infested slope of chert that gets 34 inches of rain in a good year could ever resemble the Emerald Isle.

So I’ve had to adjust my sights some. For years I’ve looked out on a weedy, parched patch of dirt off our back deck, adjacent to a slope of scraggly rosemary and oleander that the neighbors’ dogs use as a toilet. I’ve been meaning to call in the professionals for years to prepare the soil and install proper irrigation. But somehow the time is never right, and I’ve kept putting it off.

One good thing about cancer is finally absorbing that there really is no time like the present. And speaking of presents, my friend Mary, knowing of the garden dreams I’ve long harbored, gave me a wonderful one soon after I began treatment: Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region.

These authors know about deer and chert, and that we have neither the climate nor the staff of Downton Abbey. I drooled over every garden-porn page, and, in between chemo sessions, set about turning my fantasy into reality by visiting my favorite nurseries for landscaper recommendations.

Most of the people I called seemed like they’d rather be waterboarded than bother with our site and budget. But not the lovely Ashley, who said she enjoys a challenge. I was sold when she remarked about our patch of weeds off the deck, “This will be the jewel box of the garden.”

After years of waiting, we were ready to go. Fortunately, the list of plants compatible with deer, drought, poor soil, hot sun, and neglectful homeowners is not that long, so the design phase was quick. Every morning on my way home from my walk and latte, I hauled rocks from a nearby field for mini retaining walls in the jewel box. Ashley and her crew arrived and transformed the entire site in less than a day just by cleaning up 20 years of scraggle. They finished the entire installation, from irrigation to microbark, in another two. Ashley left me equipped with deer repellent and instructions for running the irrigation system.

She also left me with a beautiful garden and that deep happiness you get when you finally let yourself go for what you want. True, the garden doesn’t look as good as Downton Abbey or the photos in my book. The adjacent trees rain down eucalyptus litter constantly. The deer have messed up the shredded bark and sampled the verbena. Still, what a pleasure it is to switch my focus from scary things growing inside of me to the vibrant life springing forth in my recovery garden.


What dreams do you keep putting off? Which have you finally made a reality?


Best Laid Plans

Water spill

I sit down to write after watering and fertilizing the droopy, yellowing plants. I have been in a bit of a drought myself lately, but rain is in the offing, and today is the day I have promised myself to move from avoidance to the keyboard. I have deliberately left the Internet off so I won’t be tempted to fall down the rabbit hole of email, Facebook, and depressing headlines. I have put five discs in the CD player, hoping to feed myself with music instead of the crackers and tea I obsessively consume to fuel my procrastination and self-doubt. I have set the kitchen timer for just an hour, following the advice of a writing teacher: “Under-commit, over-achieve.”

On my way to the computer, I see that water is streaming from the saucer of the pot I have just doused. It pools on the oak surface before cascading down the bookcase, onto the books and framed pictures— Ally’s 18th birthday party, the professional shots of my daughters at their most beautiful. Only the photo of them as little girls in the bath together remains dry.

Shit. If I catch the spill now, I can prevent the rot and warp of delay. So I mop it up hastily, removing a few books, swiping at the glass protecting my daughters, hoping the water has not seeped into too many hidden places.

Fetching another towel for a final sopping up around the edges, I am tempted to throw in the towel on the morning’s writing. I try to convince myself that the rot and warp of delay, the seeping into hidden places, is the fertilizer of writing. Which it is. But it is also the avoidance that takes me too often into a parched landscape where nothing grows.

So I write this before the timer rings.


Anybody else have days like this? Anybody not have days like this? How do you recover?