The Garden

The Garden was not on my mind when I originally bought the house. The home we selected was a newly built track home in a starter home area. I did pay attention to the orientation of the home in relation to the sun. The interior would fill with light well, and the major views out the windows would have no glare to speak of. Our new “back yard” was nothing but dirt surrounded by a five ft high fence made of cedar.

The first thing we decided to install there was a patio of cement just beyond our sliding glass doors. We hired a contractor named Chevy to do that and add a path on the side of the house with the gate. I mention this because only then did I start thinking about what I wanted to do with the yard. I kept the patio small, the path narrow, so that plants in the future would have more places to be grown.

The microclimate in our area was way below freezing in winter, and it was very hot in summer but the spring was longer and fall sooner than most inland areas. So, we decided desert or tropical plants were out of the question. We decided on mountain shrubs and some sturdy garden standbys. Many native plants were researched and selected to be part of the local mountain “look” I wanted.

Depicting for you what that look exactly is, is not easy for me. It evolved over a long period of time, and my desire for a classic, yet new garden that retained a sense of America and folk art, while at the same time looking organic and whimsical. In the end, we achieved success. My tastes matured as I studied and learned through trial and error what worked. One rule kept us on track. Keep it real. Real rock and found items as opposed to bought items, would rule this kingdom.

The first thing I designed and installed on my own was the rose colored Arizona sandstone. That material was purchased and fit on to two and a half pallets. The exact shape of this path becomes the structure that keeps the garden from spinning out of control. That path is hard to see in its totality, even from the air above due to trees and over growth. Something occurred during that construction that forever changed the look of the garden. The sandstone was a week late and I had taken vacation time off work for the install. While I waited for it to be delivered I decided to go into the local hills and find some rocks for a path down the center of the garden. That started the compulsion and ensuing obsession with finding rocks for the garden. I simply loved doing it. It is hard to do, always an adventure, and very satisfying to see results of one’s labor.

The act of getting rocks and bringing them home sounds kind of simple. It wasn’t, I had a small car, a small Toyota Tercel hatch back, and it could only hold so much weight. People always ask why did I not get a pickup? I tried that with friend’s trucks, and here is what happens. The cops notice trucks on the side of the road and associate them with contractors getting free rocks. They hassle you. The more important reason is that one should select the best rocks, not just fill up the truck with the rocks nearest the truck. So if you can only get a few stones you take your time and look for exceptional ones… Plus, rocks are heavy, and a truckload is a day’s work in itself, you will hurt yourself. I guesstimate I made hundreds trips getting rocks, over thirteen years, maybe thousands as I was getting them twice a week for a long time… Early on in my collecting, my wife said to me, “don’t we have enough rocks?” I replied, ”What are you talking about?” as if she could see what I had envisioned in my head. I explained to her at that time that whatever I ended up making, it was going to be fabulous, as I would not settle for anything less.

I like rocks that have color, patterns and interesting shapes. Shapes that mean they will fit together with another rock’s edge. When installed in my garden they should look natural or even carved, as if in an Incan stonewall. A variety of sizes are important too, small to large, as big as I can get into my car. I have rocks that I really don’t know what they weighed, maybe four hundred pounds? I was just able to tip them into my car, not lift them at all. I have had boulders sitting in my car seat with as seatbelt surrounding them. Imagine a car wreck with large stones in the car? Dangerous, reckless, but something I did many times.

The actual installations were done on the weekend when home from work. The rocks were usually from the same location and selected with what I had in mind to build. They were used to make retaining walls for soil beds, but these walls ebb and flow like rock does in the mountains. There are few straight lines, and no freeway like covering of the ground with stones in cement. In fact cement was just used in the patio, not in the garden at all. This garden breathes and the soil absorbs water where it can and sheds it where it should.

There is a watering system. Two rotor sprinklers can in a pinch soak the entire place. Most of the water is delivered with drip tubing, carefully hidden from view in most places. When something breaks, and it does break, I have to move rocks to fix things. When that happens I try to improve whatever was there when I replace them. The garden uses little water. I water a lot rarely for deep roots, and some plants like my Manzanitas, do not want summer water at all. They will die from rot if they get too wet in the hot sun. Native California plants are very touchy about summer watering.

A lot of the rocks are stacked up in such a way as to resemble temple ruins… In English gardens they refer to these types of constructions as follies. Being made of stone and precariously balanced, they fall at times due to pets, birds and the shifting sands. I simply go out and stack them again, but that is a rare event. They are home to lizards, snakes, and rodents depending on the season. I built these because they added a sense of scale to the garden that is not really there. They make it look bigger and more exotic.

I have talked of rocks, but the plants are what dominate the view. They come and go as they grow and sometimes die, a mixture of perennials and shrubs, with more than a few natives thrown in. Lots of dwarf trees add scale to the garden, and many of them flower at various times of the year. There is no single best time for a view, but the Spring is welcomed by us every year.

The garden has been noticed by all who see it, and often they said, “I wish I had a garden like this.” Folk gardens do exist, but are rarely acquired through a purchase I think, they are more likely inherited or made from scratch by the original owners. The garden has affected our lives in many ways. It has added a sense of exclusive beauty to our life; it has also been a living testament to all that has gone into it. It requires as much care as other’s children do, and we love it in much the same way they do their family. We do not have kids, but the garden is our playground. The childlike feeling that one gets seeing the place is universal. The place looks like fairies live there, and this happens without a single fake fairy in sight.

I still do the occasional install and bring home the odd rock. A project like this is never done, lately, I have transferred much of my energy to photography and other creative endeavors. I do not feel like making another garden in another place. Coming home for us, means walking outside and seeing what has bloomed in the garden, what has prospered, and what has passed. Neither of us wants to leave it, nor do we know whom to leave it to. We do know it has helped keep us from leaving each other when the going got rough. It is more our home than our home is.

The Garden

Mark Ramstead

Temecula, United States

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The making of our garden.

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