Ruthie Abel

The California Garden That Inspired Garden Collage

I grew up in the California outdoors. We played in the yard, hiked in our free time, and biked to school. This was before we knew what we know now about the importance of SPF, and we were in the sun every chance we got. Our parents watered, pruned or swept around us, ever tending to the garden that swept up and around our house.

In my mother’s eyes, the garden was an extension of the living room; it was something else to take pride in. And while it was never quite perfect (there was always dirt in the path or something growing in the wrong place,) it felt like magic to me. There were brick patios, an outdoor fireplace, paths that wound through camellia bushes, fields of the sweet sour grass oxalis that we pulled out of the ground and ate. The vegetable garden, an ever-evolving rotation of whatever my mother was obsessed with at the time, produced onions and tomatoes and zucchini. We had chickens (at one point, we even had a duck) in addition to old pomegranate trees and grapes that hung flush to the wall, espaliered against the house. Our dog slept in his own house outside as we played in the playhouse for hours at a time.

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Ruthie Abel

All of our activities took place on the back patio. (The front patio, relegated to post-dinner cocktails, could never really keep up.) Maybe it was because the back patio was the largest flat space at our home on the hill, or maybe it was because that’s where the fireplace sat. If it was warm enough, our family ate outside just as though we were in the formal dining room – there were no paper cups or napkins at our picnic table. We would sit and watch the fog roll over Berkeley, eating cracked crab.

We spent summers at Lake Tahoe, jumping off the dock and waking up to cold mornings that smelled like pine needles. The garden at Tahoe felt like the mountains, all loose dirt and ferns growing out of rock walls. Wildflowers grew without rules, blooming in huge flashes of color. My mother understood the beauty of letting what is be, and while she cleared weeds and watered, she let nature do its own work.

When she could, she loaded all three of us and the dog into the car and took off for the nursery, spending an entire afternoon perusing plants while we played Batman and Robin around the greenhouses. Little did I know that when I had my own children, I would be the one taking my time while they kicked up their heels sitting on the roof of the car. But somewhere along the way, between begging to stop for a snack on the way home and being forced to deadhead the right way, I fell in love with the way columbine blooms and the bright flush of an Indian paintbrush at its prime. Hiking just to see a field of wildflowers in bloom began to seem like a reasonable, motivating endeavor.

The garden existed as an extension of our life in an almost subconscious way. Gardening was just a part of living; picking lemons off the tree or getting dinner from right outside the kitchen window were just a part of the day. It didn’t even seem like a choice, it just was—until I moved into my first apartment in New York City, and everything changed. Living without plants felt unnatural, disconcerting. Upon her arrival, the first thing my mother did was outfit the fire escape with what she deemed an acceptable number of flower-filled pots.


From there on after, whenever I went back to California, I would come home to change. Hedges taken down or transplanted, paths moved, stories of weeklong battles with a persistent gopher would abound. I cried when my father cut down the plum tree without telling me first. I would pack lemons in my suitcase on the trip home. (Even now, those lemons are still the last thing into my carry on home.) The garden I grew up with still exists, with the same orange trees and strawberry pots, now overrun by nasturtiums. The camellias still bloom every year, and one even lives on my kitchen counter in the West Village. My own children grew up deadheading and learning to cut clippings on the diagonal, just as I did.

When I think about the concept of a garden, I think nature, nurture, purpose. I was lucky enough to grow up with a mother who valued beauty, who understood the importance of keeping things alive, of coaxing them into full growth. I am who I am because of the things I learned while being outside, and the things I learned later on, when this passion became a choice. Sometimes you don’t know what you need until it’s no longer right in front of you, and its then that you have to seek it out and create it for yourself. The garden in this family runs deep: like all gardens, it is a lifeline that sustains us all.


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