Bird Park, San Diego

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

I remember my uncle’s visit in Southern California. We were living in Laguna Beach at the time, and, recently widowed, he was traveling to New Zealand from New England. We were a half-way resting place and ever so happy to have him.

My uncle looked upon it all incredulously. From Connecticut to California it must have been like landing on the moon. Main Beach is to Laguna Beach what “The Town Green” is to New England. In Laguna, a well-tended lifeguard tower stood in lieu of a white gazebo. And sand and surf where there was usually a lawn. Main Beach bustled with people, tan, fit, and half-clad.

I was seeing all this through my uncle’s eyes.

“Everyone’s in motion, aren’t they?” I asked. He could only nod.

Today our daughter lives across from Bird Park in San Diego. Bird Park is a part of Balboa Park, the famed legacy of Kate Sessions. Balboa Park may be to San Diego what Central Park is to New York City.

There is something so timeless about this scene from our daughter’s front door: a child and a swing, families picnicking. Strollers, bikes, rollerblades, scooters. Stretching routines and soccer practice.

Constructed in the shape of an enormous bird, Pershing Drive is the “branch” on which the “bird” stands. Employing native plantings to attract local birds, Bird Park is the brainchild of San Diego artists Robin Brailsford and Wick Alexander.

I raised my children not far from here in this climate when they were very young. Out every day, all day, is how I remember our time together. We were card-carrying members, regulars at The Wild Animal Park, now Safari Park. Strolling The Kilimanjaro Trail, lunching at picnic tables, napping in a double stroller while still moving.

A short jog off The Kilimanjaro Trial, we liked to cut through an Australian Rain Forest exhibit for the girls were fond of wallaby’s and kookaburras—as amused by the names as much as the animals. For me it was the vegetation, a green respite from the dry brown heat of the African-based trail. In the shelter of the rain forest I pointed out bronze signs in braille to two little girls who were learning to read English at the time. Their fingers running over and over the raised dots in each sign.

Sometimes you are all of one place. The climate became us. The park, wildlife, and horticulture, became us. I could see my daughters in khaki uniforms one day working summer jobs there. But then we moved. How did we ever move to the desert when San Diego was desert enough? I ask myself this now.

I live on an island now, and I have become it. I hear from friends that the bulbs are pushing up, and I must return.

Life moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes in circles, sometimes in avian shapes. But never in a straight line.

 

Perching birds of San Diego, in no particular order: Black-chinned sparrow, California towhee, Common yellowthroat, Horned lark, Western wood-peewee, Vermilion flycatcher, Western bluebird, Barn swallow, Blue grosbeak, Yellow warbler, Savannah sparrow, Loggerhead shrike, Northern rough-winged swallow, Red-breasted nuthatch, Rufous-crowned sparrow, Gray vireo, Marsh wren, Fox sparrow, California thrasher, Lark sparrow, Black phoebe, Tree swallow, Dusky flycatcher, Sage sparrow, LeConte’s thrasher, Lawrence’s goldfinch, California gnatcatcher, Tricolored blackbird, Say’s Phoebe, Wrentit, Bell’s vireo, Yellow-breasted chat, Red-winged blackbird, Lucy’s warbler, Chipping sparrow, Western tanager, Spotted towhee, Dark-eyed junco, Hooded oriole, Song sparrow, Brown-headed cowbird, Rock wren, Olive-sided flycatcher, Yellow-rumped warbler, Black-tailed gnatcatcher, Bushtit, Verdin, American robin, Lesser goldfinch, Green-tailed towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western kingbird, Violet-green swallow, Cassin’s kingbird, Black-throated sparrow, Phainopepha, Cactus wren, Purple finch, Scrub jay, Bullock’s oriole, Grasshopper sparrow,  Scott’s oriole, American goldfinch, Purple martin, Pacific-slope flycatcher, Lazuli bunting, Western meadowlark, Ash-throated flycatcher, Great-tailed crackle, Blue-grey gnatcatcher, Orange-crowned warbler, Brewer’s blackbird, Willow flycatcher, White-breasted nuthatch, Hutton’s vireo, Canyon wren, Crissal thrasher, Steller’s jay, Plain titmouse, Northern mockingbird, Bewick’s wren, Warbling vireo, Pygmy nuthatch, Bendire’s thrasher, Warbling vireo, Pygmy nuthatch, Bendire’s thrasher, American crow, Brown creeper, Mountain chickadee, and Common raven

 

 

 

 

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Flip Flops in January: Three Girls and a Truck at Village Nurseries, San Diego

photo credit: Jackie Mayer Blum

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We are wintering in San Diego, living on a mattress with a small bistro table, a couple folding chairs, and two bright Hawaiian printed Tommy Bahama beach chairs in an otherwise empty house. The house is a job site. Our daughter and her husband purchased a new home in North Park, San Diego. A remodel, and we are here to help.

While the men are at home swinging hammers, we are on a landscape mission. My daughter is commandeering a pickup truck, bouncing over dirt roads and splashing through puddles at Village Nurseries Wholesale Plant and Tree Grower. Thirteen acres of planted bliss, a Disneyland to me. No lines, no crowds (to-the-trade only), and free of all the commercialization.

The bed of our truck is brimming with potted plants: 5 tall Barbara Karst bougainvillea, Mister Lincoln white rose shrubs, “bartenders choice” Mexican Lime Tree, a 15 gallon Strelitzia retinae Bird of Paradise shrub, and enormous agave plants anchoring them all. Clean and new at the U Haul lot, the truck will be returning with all the mud and markings of having taken the Indiana Jones ride at Adventureland.

You had to know my mother would be on board; she must have slipped onto the bench seat. It wasn’t until we turned into the nursery that we realized she was with us. https://alittleelbowroom.com/2017/12/05/my-imaginary-mother-in-winter/ Her breath, like ours, was taken away with the vastness and the serenity of the place.

Rounding Succulents and Drought Tolerant plants, I am back in the gray/greens with Mediterranean plants. Heaven for me once, for at one time I lived in Southern California. Today I recognize some full well, yet can’t recall their names. Other names I know, but can’t picture. My daughter is reintroducing me to some old friends.

Discombobulated I fumble forward. A Master Gardener from Climate Zone 4 (San Juan Island, WA) in Zone 24 (San Diego, CA), I try to be helpful. “Seasonal amnesia,” is there such a thing? All I know is that in a rush I just mailed a Valentine’s Day card–one month early. I recall that when living here: waking and having to orient myself with the season, with the month, before stepping out of bed.

Left to our own devises mom and I might have gone crazy, but my daughter was specific. A wall of her courtyard would be draped in bougainvillea. She knew the color. A lime tree would round out their citrus collection. And white roses and giant Blue Glow agave look exquisite together. Who knew?

And who knew about my daughter’s newfound passion for plants, and in the same place where I first got the bug? Her grandmother may have been the only one to have seen that coming.

 

 

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My Imaginary Mother in Winter

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

It was my mother who prompted me to bring home the poinsettia plant this week. We will be going away for the holidays, but she was with me at the market and couldn’t resist the display.

Mom’s with me all the time now.

“O.K., O.K.” I said, “but we’re going to do it a little differently this year.” I sound like the mother now.

Typically I go for the creamy white, and she, the fire engine red. Together we took home the faded pink and we’re loving it. It lifts color from the rug and puts a blush on the complexion of everyone in the room.

Not too long ago I had to haggle with time zones, flight schedules, and getting to and from airports. Now she’s here, as I said. A companion for me in my rather reclusive life as a writer on a sparsely populated island, especially in winter.

Without her I’d be lonely.

Mom doesn’t fall ill anymore, she’s simply well. We figure out what to wear, share books, plan menus, and set spectacular tables. She’s tickled to find her silver here and thrilled when we use it. No matter how many guests, there is always room for Mom at the table.

She’s a part of me now, particularly outdoors. I always knew Mom would love this place. Yesterday we took it upon ourselves to plant the narcissi. That enormous bag of bulbs had been sitting on the floor of the mud room for two months. I had almost forgotten about it, but she remembered. We took an eyesore, a barren bank on the side of the drive, and popped into the ground 30 trumpet daffodil to bloom in early spring, 30 in mid spring, and 30 in late spring. Mom was almost giddy. The weather was raw and I was just happy to see she wasn’t cold, and her back didn’t ache in the digging.

It’s mine now that’s going.

I know of nothing like bulbs for staying forward looking in life. Growing amaryllis bulbs indoors in the Christmas season is a tradition mom instilled in us years ago. There are times when I would gladly forego everything about the holiday but that. I measure my days by its stalks.

Likewise that dirt bank in the drive is going to pull us through the winter months, I just know it. There the bulbs will rise like a standing ovation, proclaiming there will always be another spring.

One way or another.

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Paths of Desire

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

When Walt Disney designed Disneyland, he looked to see where people walked before committing those paths to concrete. Frank Lloyd Wright followed much the same principle. And today in Finland, land planners visit parks after the first snowfall of the year to best determine their layout of paths.

Otherwise paths will present themselves organically. Wikipedia states that “as few as 15 passages over a site can be enough to create a distinct trail, the existence of which then attracts further use.” Whether it is in pursuit of a short cut or a wandering at whim, ‘paths of desire’ emerge as people make their own way across the meadows, fields, parks, and median strips in parking lots of their lives.

Our feet go where they’d like, so to speak.

But not my mother’s. Given a choice, she did not trample on the grass. She did not question the rules. What my mother always desired, it seemed, were paved walks in life.

What did she think of us, I wonder? Did she think us all anarchists? I never asked her. Now I wish I had.

But I will tell you that only a few years ago I had the pleasure of walking a labyrinth path with her. We were on Orcas Island and the labyrinth garden at Emmanuel Episcopal Parish church in Eastsound presented itself. Labyrinths were originally designed by churches, primarily Episcopal, as a way to get parishioners back into the fold. How clever is that?

Walking the labyrinth appealed to us both and the church yard was all ours for half the afternoon. Over and over we walked the singular path in silence to the center, and out again. I found it calming, hypnotic, —a moving meditation.

I think I began to understand her patience that day.

Perhaps that was it, all those years. My mother had found that in following a path that presented no navigational challenges, like our labyrinth, she could find her own thoughts.

I am going to go with that.

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Cut Flowers

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photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

Cut flowers. You see them at the market, the farmer’s market, and flower stalls. They are given and received as gifts, and they are, of course, lovely. Fresh. Ephemeral. I’m OK with the whole thing now, but for the longest time—nearly all my life–I thought it wrong to cut off a flower in bud or bloom.

My mother wanted a debutante and what she got was a hippie. A naturalist from the get-go. Truth be told, I always preferred the wildflowers. The Queen Anne’s lace that seeded itself aside the highway to the heirloom rose. And to my mind, planted or wild, all flowers deserved to grow.

Pity the date who came to my door with a bouquet in hand. One look at the stemmed beauties wrapped in cellophane and I’d think, the poor things… When a relationship was lasting, I clarified my preference for potted plants. As it happened, my husband hung in the longest and our lives have been full of plants I have tended for months, years, and occasionally transplanted outdoors.

I was this way about cut flowers right up through becoming a Master Gardener. Now any gardener worth her salt will know that plants benefit from pruning, and cutting may keep some plants vigorously in flower. It just wasn’t in my nature.

I never knew where this came from until my mother lay dying last week. She was 89 years young and suffered a stroke in the hospital following a surgical operation. The stroke evolved, and there was nothing to do but keep vigil. And that is what we did for days.

I read to her from the book I had on hand, Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. Chapter after chapter of this horticultural memoir became intensely personal. I read how Hope’s strongest memory of her childhood garden was not how it smelled or looked, but how it sounded. “It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest,” she wrote.

When we came to the part about her mother’s peonies the size of cabbages, I put down the book and spoke of my own mother’s peony garden of many years ago. Closing my eyes I could see her on hands and knees tending her border alone.

“I’m sorry, mom, I never got down to help you,” I cried. “I was always running by, not interested in gardening yet. But I want you to know that I noticed how beautiful…”

And she nodded; she understood.

Suddenly I realized, right there by her hospital bedside, that in all those years of magnificent summer blooming peonies, we never had an arrangement in the house that I can recall. That’s where I got it, I thought! From my mother, who never cut the flowers she tended so lovingly.

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More Dirt

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

 

On June 1, 2017, the president turned his back on the planet. I was making my way to the gate having cleared airport security in Seattle, aware that this was the hour Trump would announce his decision on The Paris Agreement in The Rose Garden. It was 3pm Eastern Time, noon Pacific Time. What I was looking for no longer existed: mounted televisions turned permanently to CNN. Everyone has their own devises now, I suppose, and half the people had on ear buds.

I didn’t have to dig my phone out of my bag. When his decision was announced, it was palpable. I could feel it, all the weight and weariness in the crowd at Seatac. Wherever our destination, whatever our mission in life, we were all off on our lonely flights attending the same funeral.

If that was a death march, in the morning I woke with a Bob Dylan song in my head. Time will tell who has fell, And who’s been left behind, When you go your way and I go mine.

Flatbed truck after flatbed truck hauled in specimen trees for planting and bright yellow caterpillar tractors moved earth at The Village at Duxbury, the retirement community where my parents reside outside Boston. I was witness to the creation of what will one day, no doubt, be an arboretum. Trees my parents and future generations will watch grow.

I thought of our own expanding efforts at home growing salad greens, herbs, fruit and vegetables. Living as sustainably as possible on the island, while farming oysters, clams, and mussels in the bay. And The Demonstration Garden where I work with other Master Gardeners, growing produce for our local food bank.

Suddenly we are singing another song, something like a Battle Hymm of the Republic.

On the same day as the dire announcement in The Rose Garden, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, and Gov. Jerry Brown of California formed the United States Climate Alliance to uphold the objectives of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. To date thirteen states and Puerto Rico have joined the alliance. Eleven additional states have pledged to support the Paris Agreement, representing over 60% of the populace of the United States. Hundreds of mayors of US cities, including the 10 most populous, either support the alliance or are committed to upholding the Paris Agreement.

Businesses are going ahead with green energy because it’s good business. Pittsburgh plans to power itself entirely with renewable energy. And on and on.

Our new battle cry: the more damage the Trump Administration tries to do to the environment, the greener we go.

 

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The Things that Disappear

Taylor Shellfish Farms, Bow WA

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

“The Running of the Brides” was a one-day sale of wedding gowns at Filene’s Basement, a tradition at the downtown flagship Boston store from 1947 until the store finally closed in 2007. Gowns that retailed for thousands of dollars were on sale in the hundreds. Brides-to-be stormed the store with posses of fast running, bartering and trading friends, sisters, and mothers. As at Chicago’s commodities market, bells were rung and whistles blown to locate each other on the floor. Stepping into and hoisting out of gowns in the aisles, brides-to-be emptied the racks.

Another annual event this time of year is the Oyster Seed Sale at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Bow, Washington. In order to be in line at dawn with other oyster farmers, many from our own bay on San Juan Island, we had to ferry over the day before and spend the night. There we always purchase several bags of Pacific Triploids, Pacific Diploids, Kumamoto, and Olympia Oysters seeds. Gone like the bridal gowns, with everyone hurrying home to get their seeds back in the water at low tide.

After months of preparation, this year’s Master Gardener Plant Sale on San Juan Island was nearly over in thirty-five minutes. As the line had grown outside Mullis Senior Center before the doors opened, it’s almost safe to say one had to be in that line too for a bountiful selection of vegetable and herb seedlings.

There was just one catch: because of record cold temps, customers were advised not to plant their purchases outdoors. Not before a gradual “hardening off” to get acclimated to the outdoors. Always a good idea with vegetables grown from seedlings under cover, a one-to-two week process exposing them to a few hours of sun per day in a location sheltered from strong sun, winds, hard rain, and cold temps. Bringing them in at night, of course.

We see onions and brassica, the hardiest, going out first. Followed by celery, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, and endive in the vegetable march. Basil, tomatoes, and peppers, most tender of all, with eggplants, melons, and cucumbers preferring nighttime temperatures in the 60’s.

We’re still a ways from that this spring. In the daily procession at our home, toting vegetable plants between kitchen and deck, back and forth in what Gabe Rivera calls “a yearning to graduate to the great outdoors,” we are building horticultural armored plating in the seedlings. It’s all good. Any lingering overcast is also less stressful for plants.

These are among the things that disappear this time of year: wedding gowns, oyster seeds, and vegetable & herb starts. Just the beginning of things, really.

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