Sunday, June 14, 2009

I Fought the (Natural) Law, and the Law Won

When I was younger, I was a serial killer of plants. Much innocent foliage gave its life until I got bright enough to acknowledge that I didn't know what I was doing.

So I bought some books, watched "The Victory Garden" (these were the days before HGTV) and talked to staff at garden centers.

As a result, my gardens when I lived in Northern New York State were healthy and flourishing, partly because I picked the right plants for the planting zone in which I was living.

Luckily for me, this zone matched my aesthetic, which runs to rambling, overgrown English country garden.

Then I moved to Los Angeles and resumed my murderous ways.

Here, I don't have a garden, I have a balcony. It faces southwest and so, even a few miles inland, gets whipped by the wind off the Pacific Ocean. It also alternately gets baked by the midday and afternoon sun, or fogged in by the marine layer (sometimes both in the same day).

It can be pretty chilly out there or stiflingly hot. And it's never, ever really winter, and it can be summer at any time of the year.

Over the next few years, Mother Nature resolutely resisted my every attempt to recreate the English country garden look, baking or rotting a succession of violas, Johnny-jump-ups, strawberry plants, double impatiens, miniature roses (OK, the squirrels eating the buds didn't help either), tuberous begonias, lamiums, sweet woodruff and other plants too numerous to mention and too painful to remember.

I also went through several varieties of rosemary and lavender, which usually grow well in Los Angeles, just not on my balcony. Too hot, too damp, too something.

Of course, other Mediterranean herbs did very well -- especially basil -- as did any kind of succulent, but they didn't fit my vision, so I didn't want to plant them. Oh, no, I preferred the ones that required daily watering, loads of insecticide and constant moving around the space to get optimal light conditions or to shield from the wind.

After dumping one last load of my expired horticultural experiments, I finally gave in.

Mother Nature won, but then she always does. You see, I had forgotten an elemental lesson.

You'd better learn to work with Mother Nature, because she has absolutely no intention of working with you.

Now, you can plant orange trees in a heated Adirondack greenhouse and circumvent the winter, or dump uncounted thousands of gallons of water and chemicals on a Los Angeles lawn to maintain lush green grass in a desert, but trying to push Nature's boundaries is inevitably extremely difficult and extremely expensive.

Better, perhaps, to plant a Macintosh apple tree outdoors in the mountain valley, or landscape with native plants in Southern California.

Or, in my case, better to plant those herbs, succulents, bougainvillea (pictured above) and scented geraniums that thrive in the environment I have provided for them. After all, I chose to live in a desert, in an urban apartment, not in a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a Saratoga Springs carriage house.

Rather than thumbing my nose at Nature and slaughtering plants with abandon, I have taken responsibility for my decisions and yielded to her greater wisdom.

Yeah, I still have a lavender, even though I'm quite convinced it will only get so big in a pot and then die. Or, maybe I'll give it then to a friend with a yard, where it can go in the ground and live a long and beautiful life.

The lesson in this is that no matter how many times we tell ourselves that we can control Nature, that we can tweak her systems and bend her rules, she will always have the last word.

And by the way, since I stopped trying to turn a patch of concrete in Southern California into a vision out of Beatrix Potter, I've saved a lot of money, time and effort, and my garden, while not my original vision, is a vision nonetheless, one I never tire of seeing.

For one of my favorite takes on the environment, visit www.mikeroweWORKS.com, created by Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs." I'd love it if you perused the whole site, but if you're in a hurry to get out and weed your own patch, just click here. Rowe's an advocate of "Brown Before Green," of which I am an eager acolyte.

As Mike says, "Like my friends who espouse all things Green, I want to live on a healthy planet. I really do. But I’m tired of the guilt. I’m suspicious of the manipulation. And I’m weary of being lectured by people who seem to care more about the planet than the people on it. Hollywood and Washington have shaped the issue, and now, all things Eco-friendly are up for sale. Well, that’s fine. But when it comes to jobs, the people who make a difference aren’t covered in green. They’re covered in Brown - dirt, mud, grime, grease, or maybe something worse. I’m no expert, but if we’re going to save the Earth, the color of Dirt makes a heck of a lot more sense than the color of Envy. The way I see it, if we really want to get clean and green, we’re gonna have to get down with brown. In other words, we’re going to have to get our hands dirty."

Check the site, there's lots more where that came from. Or you can click here to see where Mike and I discussed the topic for my other blog, Hot Cuppa TV.

Like Mike, when someone tells me how to save the Earth, I'd like to know they spend time with a bit of it under their fingernails.

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