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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Nothing but Dirt

By Jim Bishop.

Inspired by Butchart Gardens in British Colombia, in the fall of 1984 I started planning to landscape the backyard of my house. It had 2 existing trees: a Ficus microcarpa that had been trimmed into a lollypop, and a 15 gallon potted Monterey Pine left by the previous owner – probably a live Christmas tree. I planted the pine in the corner where 2 slopes met and it was here that I learned that my hill was mostly caliche. The neighborhood was on a steep hill where the developer had cut into the hillside to create pads for the houses with steep slopes between the lots. This exposed the dense concrete-like subsoil that must have at one time been under the ocean. It took a pickaxe, a breaker bar and a lot of time to dig even a very small hole. So, I knew one of the first things I needed to do if I was going to create a garden was amend the soil.

Besides the 2 trees, there was a 20 foot high back and side slope between my lot and neighbors on two sides. It was square cut in a very uninteresting way. The rest of the yard was a rectangular Bermuda lawn with several rectangular pads of concrete up against the house. The back of the house faced west and the concrete absorbed heat during the day and reflected it back into the house making it very hot on a sunny day. So my next priority was to create some sort of shade cover off the dining room and also block the view directly into the house of the neighbor above.

I decided the best way to create a more aesthetically pleasing backyard was to cut into the base of hill and create large raised beds and add curves to the edge of the existing rectangular lawn. I took several days off work and had a truck load of railroad ties in various lengths delivered to use in terracing the hill. I also had redwood delivered to create a shade cover over the existing patio. I rented two dumpsters for the lawn and iceplant to be removed. The yard looked so barren. I surely would never fill both the dumpsters. However, I was very surprised when I cut into the Disney iceplant to find out it was over a foot thick. I sliced it in into long sheets and rolled them into bails the size of a trash can. I quickly filled a dumpster. The Bermuda grass proved to be more of a struggle to remove. I dug down to the unimproved soil and removed it as best I could. However, the soil was very difficult to cut into and I ended up removing more dirt than I planned. I quickly filled the second dumpster. Even though there were instructions not to fill the dumpsters to the top, I climbed on top and compacted everything as much as possible and continued to add more sod and iceplant. When they came to pick up the dumpsters, the heavyset driver was surprised at the weight when he tried to rotate a dumpster and it started rolling downhill and almost knocked him down. He was able to get a block under the wheels to stop it. Next, he connected it to the truck, but when he tried to hoist it up, the truck started to overturn. He disconnected it and drove away. I thought; “Uh oh, what if he makes me remove all of that sod from the dumpster.” But he came back, repositioned his truck and extended stabilizers from the sides of the truck to keep it from tipping. With much groaning and creaking, the two dumpsters were hoisted onto the truck and hauled away.

Back to the landscape, I cut trenches into the hillside to place the railroad ties. Shorter ones were placed upright in curves and full-sized ones were stacked to create low retaining walls. Some were much heavier than others and I had to come up with creative ways to drag them to the backyard from the driveway and get them up the hill. On the side slope next to the kitchen, I created a long raised vegetable garden. At the end near the garage I upended railroad ties to create a large box structure that would become the mulch pile.

I bought peeler logs (these were the cores of trees that were left over after making plywood and they were treated with something to keep them from rotting) and cut then into 8 and 10 in lengths and up ended them around the edge of the lawn to create raised beds.

Backyard after removing sod, iceplant, building the beds and tilling in fill dirt

I borrowed a rototiller and had 17 yards of topsoil delivered. I put a thick coat of gypsum in the new beds and covered it with the topsoil and rototilled everything together. I create small hills and valleys out of the soil and was ready to plant my first Southern California garden.

I was very unfamiliar with most of the plants in San Diego so, I read the Sunset Western Garden Book from cover to cover and made mental notes of plants I liked. I went to many nurseries and read a lot of plant labels. I knew that wrong choices can be difficult to fix once plants grow in and tried to avoid plants that required a lot of maintenance or tended to grow out of scale. I was also aware of the cost of water and the dry climate so tried to avoid plants that were big water users. Still, I made many mistakes.

First Spring after planting

I had plants delivered from Evergreen Nursery, including 7 Eucalyptus camphora trees for the back slope selected to block the view of the neighbor's house and also provide shade. However, these quickly provided too much shade and I removed them one by one until there was only one left which eventually grew into a focal point of the garden. Over the years the garden would mature to look as though the plants and hardscape where spiraling up to this tree on the slope. Unfortunately, the neighbor behind the house, who had removed all of his trees - bless his heart - protested to the Homeowners Association about my tree and my neighbor's trees blocking his view. I lost the battle and had the tree removed when I sold the house. I’m so glad I wasn’t there to see the garden without the focal-point tree.

Lower down in the garden, I planted a coral tree, Erythrina caffra. I first noticed this tree in the San Diego Airport parking lot. I fell in love with the sturdy structure and lush look of the heart-shaped leaves. Over the years I would learn this tree is totally unsuitable for a suburban backyard. I hated the way most coral trees were topped or cut them back to large stumps each year so I left mine alone. I learned fairly soon that the weight of the water-filled branches broke easily and disfigured the tree. Reluctantly, I began an annual maintenance program and each winter removed much of the new growth...sometimes 20 foot long branches. Luckily it was easy to trim.

In the opposite corner of the garden was an existing Ficus japonica. This tree I would learn is also quite inappropriate for a suburban lot --it never stops growing! I was soon cutting it back 8 or more feet every year. The surface roots uplifted everything and were so dense that little could grow under it.

Also on the back slope, I planted ceanothus and Acacia knipholia. This ceanothus was a small leafed variety and didn't provide much of a screen from the neighbors. If it bloomed it was for a very short duration and the flowers were so small they were barely noticeable. The acacias were quite happy and quickly outgrew the allotted space. I later removed a few and trained the remaining ones into small trees.

I planted 3 dwarf citrus trees on one side of the yard. However, other than the Myer lemon, they never did well and eventually I removed all save the lemon.

In the middle of the back bed on a small hill, I planted two 15 gallon Birds of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae). I thought the flowers were so exotic I simply to grow them. Eventually, they became crowded and bloomed less and I spent hours cleaning out the dead leaves and snails that lived in them.

On the south facing slope, I planted a cute little purple New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) , Orchid Rockrose (Cistus x purpureus) and dwarf oleanders. They were all so small at first...imagine my surprise when the Phormiums grew to 9 feet tall and wide and shaded the rockroses. They became an impossible maintenance task to remove the dead leaves and keep the plants looking good. The rockroses would reach for the sun, but since you were looking up at them, you mostly saw the unattractive underside of the plants. The oleanders never did very well.

First Summer after planting

During my travels, I had marveled at the spring blooms of the Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) that were planted along the shore in Monterey, however, I knew this plant didn't look good all year, so I planted one in the back corner of the garden. It would bloom beautifully each year, but leave behind a ton of seed that sprouted all over the garden. Nearby on the slope, I planted a plumbago. This freeway-proportioned plant, did well and covered the dry slope, and only got a few major haircuts over the years.

As you can see from the list, I chose very few shrubs and, most notable for those of you have seen our current garden, there were no succulents!

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