Paradise, though imperfect, found on home soil

June 20, 2005|by Dorry Baird Norris

How would you like sunny skies, low humidity and winter temperatures that don't drop below 25 degrees?

Imagine a place where geraniums live year-round and where rosemary is used for hedges. Now that's what I call gardening country.

But it's computers, not gardens, for which the Silicon Valley is famous. We recently made a quick trip to Los Gatos, Calif., an hour's drive south of San Francisco, and were astounded at the variety of plants that seem to flourish there.

OK, there are some flies in the ointment - the average rainfall for June is zero and the price of real estate boggles the mind. Then there are those pesky earthquakes. A particularly nasty one wreaked havoc on the nearby display gardens of Roses of Yesterday. But it is a lovely place to garden.


The special combination of a gritty soil, sunshine and relatively low humidity in this part of California make for a less jungle-like atmosphere than places in the same climate - zone 9 - such as, for example, in Florida.

Huge trees - cypress, pine and eucalyptus - reach up to the blue sky and mingle with more tropical palm trees. Near where we were staying, a eucalyptus, with picturesquely peeling bark, was so big that I couldn't get my arms around it. One wonders if these these trees are really, really old, or do they just grow more because of the mild climate?

Roses were beyond their prime, but some were still blooming in every yard. Almost everywhere the roses are complemented by huge stands of society garlic (hardy only through zone 7).

Oleanders, in full bloom, line the highways. Here and there, great stands of wild fennel rise up from more carefully planted spaces. Knowing how dry my fennel gets when it dies back, I wondered if the fennel stems in California could provide tinder for the forest fires that sometimes sweep the hills.

For years, I've nurtured two acanthus plants, ecstatic when they push tentatively up through the cold earth each spring. Now here, planted in a 50-foot row, were 100 acanthus plants ready to burst into bloom. Massed like that, they are magnificent. It's easy to understand why the early Greeks and Romans were so fascinated with the plant and used its likeness on temple columns.

I fell in love with a sprawling rosemary in front of our host's home. It grew almost 4 feet tall and spread equally as wide. But it didn't look like an upright rosemary. The twigs were twisty like the branches on my prostrate rosemary. Naturally, I brought a handful of cuttings home to root. They can go in the window box with the cuttings I made from my own rosemary before we went away.

Everywhere, lavender flourishes, with the longest stems I have ever seen - at least 2 feet. Of course, cuttings from those beauties found their way into my travel bag along with the rosemary.

Ivy, with leaves as big as the palm of my hand, grows everywhere - under trees, up trees and as a ground cover. It's lovely, but one fears it could become a bully if not kept in check.

It was interesting to see alyssum and verbena planted in beds the same way we do here in the East. I wondered if they just keep growing or are replanted seasonally the way pansies are here.

I also was surprised that plants I left behind in my own garden were at the same stage of growth and bloom in California. Do they rebloom or do they die back? I suppose they behave the same way our perennials do. I never made it to a nursery center to get answers to my questions.

After four days in the Silicon Valley, it was easy to understand why TV shows that feature garden makeovers seem to emanate from California. In that climate, they have a wider library of plants to choose from and can do garden work 365 days a year.

When we stepped from the air-conditioned comfort of BWI airport into the bake oven of a Baltimore evening - 90 degrees with humidity to match - mild California seemed awfully attractive. But I love the change of seasons and the challenge of gardening where the weather is a major part of the equation. And when it comes right down to it, I welcome the fact that winter often edits my garden for me.

So it's back to the weeds and the humidity and my Washington County garden - my own imperfect version of paradise.

Herbarist, lecturer and Hagerstown resident Dorry Baird Norris is a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America and author of "The Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook." She welcomes questions about the non-medical use of herbs. Send e-mail to her at or write in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD 21741.

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