Early July, my birthday month. In Southern California this means the ever earlier beginning of what we call fire season, historically reserved for dry fall months. I’m not an ecologist, but someone who is outside a lot. Someone who pays attention to the land, photographs it, and notices the ongoing changes over the years. Needless to say, growing up here we didn’t have months on end of skies amber with smoke. But that’s a post for another day.
Independence Day fireworks came and went. I’ve passed on them yet again to mind the sanity of my dogs for the evening, plus I can’t stand the poor air quality the next day. I choose instead to admire the small sunflower bursting open in my container garden. These Helianthus have been surprisingly more work than I’m used to, needing extra care and water in an already hot summer. But the blooms I do love.
These little summer suns. Among the fire colors I have spilling out of pots and small patches in my garden. The only fire colors I’m hoping to see in yet another year of climate records shattering. I’ll be keeping an eye on the landscape as we carry on through it.
Being from Southern California, I grew up with earthquakes. Yes, I’m one of those people who will stand there calmly as the earth under my feet literally shakes. The occasional fire might have made the news when I was a kid, but back then climate change was real but mentioned rarely and usually in passing. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that fire season became something so all-consuming. Several fires have threatened my home in the hills over the years, and I’ve been evacuated once in the middle of the night. I’m currently sandwiched between two large fires–the Bobcat Fire and the El Dorado Fire–each burning tens of thousands of acres.
Late September. The wildfires continue to wreak devastation up and down the West Coast, and the sky is filled with a toxic atmosphere of smoke. I’m tending to my garden. A piece of land that was a simple, plain lawn when we first moved here. Now it is a constant work in progress, thanks in many ways to an excellent professional gardener, Miguel.
As of yet, I have to limit my time outside, but do I have my own projects in the garden as well. I keep an eye on the big plants and I’ve spent much of the last few months weeding more than I ever have in my life. The garden has become my sanctuary and the thing that tears my eyes away from computer and phone screens.
I’ve started stacking a growing collection of gardening books along with a few seed catalogs. Finding a copy of Martha Stewart’s Gardening Month by Month at a thrift store was, like many things Martha, the start of a great love. Her yearlong paean to her masterpiece garden at her old Turkey Hill home, paired with incredible photography, is something to behold.
From there, I found myself diving into the wonderful A Way to Garden by Margaret Roach, former head gardening editor at Martha Stewart Living. Her anthropomorphic approach the gardening year as six seasons, starting in birth all the way to death and afterlife. Her “how-to and woo-woo” approach illuminates the elemental joys of gardening.
Still, for some reason most gardening books are centered around an East Coast, New England style of gardening, where there are more conventional seasons–pleasant springs, humid summers, crisp falls, and snowy winters. As opposed to here in California where much of that just simply does not apply. Luckily, I happened upon 52 Weeks in the California Garden by Robert Smaus, former gardening editor at the LA Times. His recommendation is to start the gardening year in September as he states in the Introduction:
“My gardening year begins in lat summer, when I fish out some weathered redwood flats and sow seeds of broccoli, calendula, delphiniums and other things I plan to plant in the fall. In the warm weather of August, seeds don’t sit, but sprout like a rocket lifting off, and six weeks later they’re large enough to go out into the garden…In our climate, fall is spring, at least as far as planting is concerned, and autumn, not spring, should be our busiest time in the garden.”
Having published this in 1997, I don’t think Smaus had to account for the apocalyptic wildfires we have happening now. Still his thoroughness in describing just how to truly maintain a thriving garden amidst the dryness, the Santa Ana winds, the heavy raining season, the ever more common droughts, and our notoriously hard clay soils have become fundamental to me. A guide for each week of the year here in SoCal.
So, here it is. The new gardening year begins, fall as spring, as the West Coast burns to an ashen crisp. I don’t know how to fix these terrible fires beyond acknowledging the impending doom of climate change–but I can make this a small sanctuary for the birds, the bugs, and the humans that pass through.