Choate Garden of California, East Bay

We bought our home a year ago. Three children and 1,400 square feet of house are not enough to most people in the Tri-Valley, but I never wanted a big house. A big house is more to clean, I said. Brad and I lived around the country in 6 other homes before we bought in California. In each apartment or house, the first months seemed perfectly furnished with space enough to move around comfortably, but the effects and luggage of life will creep in to every corner of a home. After a year or more, furniture and possessions line the walls until either the buying stops or the Salvation Army is called for pickup. We bought a small house not because we couldn’t afford more, but because we found the right one.

With large, South-facing windows, vaulted ceilings both down and upstairs, and an open floor plan, we have the light and air we wanted and actually, the illusion of more space than there really is. The last house was a cave where dust and grime could hide from my weak eyes. Because of the light here, I’ve never had a cleaner house.

By Christmas, I decided the pretty light of this house needed some singing birds, so I brought home two parakeets for our children to name, Baby and Spirit. This was out of character for me. I don’t like animals in the house. And the kids’ faces were completely blank when I walked through the door with them. Brad and Seth have taken to the birds the best, taming them. I trim their wings. But the birds sing with all kinds of sounds, They start squawking if the kids get rowdy, if I turn the kitchen tap on full blast, or open a noisy bag of chips. They like Sinead O’Connor and Cary Ann Hearst. Best of all, ever since watching A Dolphin Tale, they make the distinct chirp of a dolphin. Every day we hear them duplicate my iPad’s 3-note alarm. Their tone is perfect.

I open the window so the birds look out on the garden. The previous owner worked in his garden every day. The garden is largely why we bought the house. It’s a substantial size for a small house in an East Bay suburb. We said it would be our 2nd living room. We have 5 redwoods, a birch tree, bamboo, apple, peach, fig, plum, orange, and 2 large lava rocks.

But the weeds… Oh my word, the weeds! I had no idea the weed pit I would find! None of our other properties were like this. I do not remember weeds in Arkansas. The grass grew. My tulips, tiger lilies, hostas, and roses were beautiful, but I don’t remember pulling weeds. In Connecticut, we lived in the woods. The lawn was cut. Beyond that, the dense thicket belonged to the bugs. Two of our children were treated for lyme disease in the 5 years we lived there. Again, no memory of weeds. In CT, it was the snow shoveling that kept us busy. That is, it kept Brad busy. I was pregnant and/or nursing the entire time we lived there.

Two weeks ago, I met a weed that was stronger than I was, and I can workout like a demon, doing squats and jumping jacks like mad if I feel like showing off. I decided then, the world belongs to the weeds.

But in the first week of meeting our neighbors last summer, four of them pointed out what a pretty garden the previous owner kept. They sound very nice when they say this, but I’m hearing, “You need to keep it nice.” I’ve tried. We want to keep up the yard ourselves, but raking redwood needles and pulling weeds is not gardening. It’s just clean-up. We’ve had no time for gardening. We’ll probably hire someone this fall for the clean-up. This is a failure to me. My people don’t hire others to do the back work. Where’s the pride in that? We come from farmers and gardeners. Who doesn’t, right? But in the recent past, we come from agricultural people in Arkansas and Mississippi where a family’s garden is like a small farm to a suburban Californian.

I have yanked some ugly succulents out of the ground, half dead, prickly beasts. I never liked poky, spiky plants. Give me foxgloves, clover, and a glossy ivy. It is very slow though, building a garden, even one that’s established. Making it mine means digging up and planting more. We have several places to sit in the garden. I drink my tea of a morning out there. It’s only in the garden, the second living room, that I can hear the whole conversation between our little birds and the wild birds. To enjoy the idleness I have to ignore the garden work I see in my future. There I can read most of an essay or a short story before a child finds me to show me her dragon eggs and teach me dragon speak.