Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
November, 2009
Regional Report

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That's me in the orange, with my team of gardeners hard at work!


My guilty secret? I'm a big kid at heart. I had a romping good time planting at an all-native garden with the kids from the Claire Lilienthal K-8 Alternative School in San Francisco. There were about 25 kids ranging in age from 7 to 13 who were studying ecology. The National Gardening Association brought me in to demonstrate planting techniques and the benefits of growing native plants. Well, that was the plan anyway...

Only the day before I had been on the East Coast visiting my mum in the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. My flights were delayed (of course) and I had picked up the beginning of a miserable cold on the plane (of course). Feeling a bit daunted by the task of facing a class full of eager faces, I got started at 6:00am (3:00am EST), rounding up tools and plants from my office in Brisbane. A quick cup of coffee on the road and I was on my way, via GPS, to San Francisco's Marina District. The GPS took me over hill and dale. I know my way around the city fairly well, but the route up and down steep Divisadero Street was a challenge for both me and my 30-year-old automobile.

I arrived at the school early, found a parking spot, and walked around to the front of the building where the planting was obviously going to take place. Parents and teachers had put in a huge amount of work building planting beds, raised boxes, and crushed granite pathways where only a tired lawn had existed before. It was an impressive endeavor. I looked at my fading fremontodendron, zauschneria, and mimulus and felt that we just might be out of our league. Never mind, we always try to do our best.

Jill Tsuwaga, the charming publicist working with NGA and our corporate sponsor, Hansens Natural, was on hand to make the introductions. Kids, teachers and the principal arrived with a wheelbarrow full of kid-sized tools. Magically, a cart appeared full of dozens of perfectly healthy native plants in deep 4-inch containers.

I couldn't have asked for a more eager audience. After a brief introduction, we got down to work. I asked each child what they liked to do best in the garden. Chris, a handsome young man of 11, told me he liked to "crush things." "Great!" says I, "You will be in charge of dividing the plants that have basal shoots." I put him right to work on the native iris. I had plenty of volunteer hole diggers, young ladies who gently removed the plants from the deep containers after a brief instruction, soil smoothers, plant doctors who groomed my ratty collection of natives, and even a few sweepers to clean up after the whirling tornado that was our planting session.

Kids and dirt are a natural combination. My hole diggers were enthusiastic, to say the least. After a brief dissertation on how to keep the soil in a pile so that it would be easy to refill the hole, the digging went very smoothly. One young fellow dug a hole that I would have comfortably fit into. We had in-depth discussions about clumps of clay and bits of shell. I instructed my kids that native plants require very little water and so require excellent drainage. I asked them to keep the top one inch of each root ball above the surface of the soil. I also gave a heartfelt lecture on how plants were living things and had feelings, and to please handle them gently and with respect. I know that lesson was met by at least one young lady who found a forgotten piece of native iris on the ground, complete with a single leaf and tiny bit of root. She asked me, "If I care for this, will it grow?"

Dear Lord, this is exactly why I love gardening!

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