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Gardening on the Mendocino Coast

Gardening Within
William P. Meyers

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My wife and I are planning a move to a less remote area. Our realtor friend was here yesterday to discuss whether the house could be sold. There are a lot of issues with selling a remote rural home. The particular issue I'll discuss here is my peculiar landscaping and gardening style. It might not be attractive to potential buyers.

We came to the coastal area of southern Mendocino County, California in the early 1990s. At the time I had been active with Earth First! for about 5 years. The earth was already dying then, and it is dying faster now, and so when we bought a small piece of land (with the help of a mortgage company), I wanted to treat it in a manner consistent with my views. Which is not consistent with how most people, around here or anywhere, treat their land.

But let's go back even further, to a time when there were a lot less people (by about 50%) living on this earth, the 1960s. After 6 years of growing up on or near various Marine Corps bases, I was moved to suburban Florida. The lawns were mowed green grass. At my family's first home there were a few shrubs and 2 palmettos on either side of the driveway, but no trees. The second home had some nice trees: a hickory, an oak, a pine and a holly. But my mother was determined to grow some sort of grass species that did not like it there. Another, coarser grass wanted to grow, plus the usual weeds. For ten years at intervals I worked on the lawn project, pulling out undesirable grasses and weeds and raking up leaves (my older brother got the mowing job).

I cast a dim eye upon the entire Florida lawn project, and not just because of the mosquitoes, horseflies, deer flies and biting gnats. I cast a dim eye on a lot of stuff. Not as dim as my mother's famously dim eye, which was very conventional in its tastes and hatreds. But pretty dim. Why was the world watering and fertilizing grass, then cutting it, raking the cuttings up, and sending them away in the trash? Hadn't anybody read a biology book? Didn't they know that in nature you don't need bags of fertilizer to keep grass growing? But my mother's lawn was a precious symbol of middle-class respectability (she had grown up on a tenant farm). We had a grass lawn, but it was not to be played on. It was for looking at. And for weeding.

Nature has its cycles, its wheels within wheels. The land I now "own" is on the first ridge above the ocean. Almost certainly it was overgrown with redwoods and other large trees until the first logging took place sometime in the 1800s. Because it was a ridge, the soil was not thick, and the trees were not as big as the ones on the slopes below. But they were easy to cart to mills and then to San Francisco, and so they were cut. Then heavy rains eroded the soil. When the trees grew big enough, decades later, they were cut again. By then the soil would not sustain a redwood, so other species came to dominate: manzanita and madrone, bishop pine and rhododendra. Brush, not forest. Apparently there was a big fire in the 1950s, which was followed by more erosion.

So there I am, in 1995, with a parcel of land dominated by dying bishop pines (an at-risk species local to the area), covered with brush, and with only a couple of inches of mostly sandy soil in most places. Sucking up water from the septic lines there were some pretty big sequoia (the kind found around Yosemite) planted by the prior owners and there were a couple of coast redwoods, the bigger ones being less than a foot in diameter, and the smaller ones, also planted by the prior owners, stunted for lack of soil and water to mostly under two feet high.

People kindly made suggestions. The most common one was to buy a truckload or four of "good" soil and dump it on the land. Brilliant. Buy soil, which means ripping it up from somewhere and burning a bunch of petrol to place it somewhere else. That'll put a stop to global warming.

Instead, I started caring for the land, and under my care it has begun to heal. When a tree or shrub dies, which happens a lot since they grew up too close together and it usually does not rain between May and October, one of two things happens. It gets cut up for firewood, so that we don't have to burn propane of use electricity (much) for heat in winter. Or it gets left (perhaps after some chopping) to turn itself into mulch, which eventually turns into a tiny bit of soil. The mulch helps hold moisture in the soil. It furnishes nutrients. It is just what happens in a natural forest. If a dead tree is left standing, it attracts insects and then woodpeckers.

With regard to land care three kinds of people irritate me. I don't criticize them, but if they ask me why I don't do as they do, I explain my alternative practice. They rarely ask.

Burn Pile People. For some reason people in the country, including most people who move in from the suburbs or cities, love burn piles. They have the same appeal as fireworks. When a tree dies or just does something irritating like blocking the sun or an ocean view, it gets thrown in a burn pile. Sometimes people bulldoze brush (also known as rare California native plants) and small trees from a good sized area into a burn pile. Then they set it on fire. Construction scraps and garbage may to in to. Creating air that is as bad as you might find in Beijing or Mexico city. It gets the dead wood out of sight, but then they don't have mulch, so their soil gets thinner, with less organic matter. Burn pile people expect to dump bags of fertilizer on their land or haul in soil to get anything to grow. When those external inputs are turned into plant material, eventually they chop it down and burn it. It is a way of rural life.

English Garden People. I use English Garden in a general sense for a garden that is extremely orderly. I do find such gardens to be pretty: they are eye candy. But natural they are not. It does not matter to me if an English Garden is organic or heavy with pesticide: what you won't see is a decaying log or tree stump. I like decaying logs. I like lines that are not straight. I like wildflowers coming up in odd places. However, when I walk in an English Garden I just say "Those are pretty roses. What variety are they?" and the like. The better English Garden people don't say, if they see my garden, "why don't you move that decaying log?" They say "that pear tree seems to be doing really well!" I wish they would ask about the decaying logs, because I long to tell them how decaying logs are mini-ecosystems that support large numbers of species and, eventually, become the complex soil that makes my pears so wonderful.

Fire Hazard Paranoids. These are often also burn pile people. They are afraid their house will burn down if they leave a tree or shrub within a hundred yards of it. They look at my land and they say "But the fire hazard!" Now, as in most paranoia, it is true there is such a thing as fire, and there are forest fires (and brush fires), and occasionally a house burns down as a result. But of all the houses that have burnt down around here since I've been in the neighborhood, exactly zero have burned down because they caught fire from an external forest fire.

Your house is the fire hazard! There are three major sources of fire in a typical country home. There is the electrical system, the usual culprit. There is the gas (natural or propane). There is the woodstove or fireplace. I know of homes that have been destroyed by each of these. Another source of fire is vehicles: if you car or pickup or tractor catches on fire, there is a good chance your garage or barn is going to light up and take your house with it.

I'm not saying I pile up dry wood against my house. My house already consists of dry wood! I keep the area immediately around my house clear of dead brush, and I water the trees that shade my house, if necessary, to keep them green. Green trees can burn, but not easily.

So I have my ways. I don't use a chain saw, a lawn mower, or a weed whacker. I use my hands, my back, some simple tools, a wheelbarrow, and mulch. You might say that while I don't mind a good apple or pear or plum or snow pea, what I have spent nearly 20 years doing is growing mulch. It isn't for everyone.

And in another 25 years, this land will look great. Except I am likely selling it, and it will be up to the next person to decide how to treat it.

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