There’s cooked rice strewn over one part of the yard for the little birds. Gerry sometimes cooks two cups of rice a day to feed the white-crowned sparrows when they’re migrating.
  • There’s cooked rice strewn over one part of the yard for the little birds. Gerry sometimes cooks two cups of rice a day to feed the white-crowned sparrows when they’re migrating.
  • Image by Erik Hanson
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I have a little garden. It is the most closely watched patch of earth in my experience. My attention is born on an interest in obsession and in horticulture. When I go out with a cup of coffee or a book, I find myself on my hands and knees in no time, weeding, or just looking at the progress of some slow-growing miniature ivy, or an orchid stalk, or a delirium tremens of ants. Where there are ants there is trouble.

Sally Long: “We brought 100 roses from our previous home in the middle of summer and didn’t lose one."

Jean Genet wrote, “The most beautiful flower in the garden was the gardener.” It was with affection for the gardener that I decided to visit some San Diego gardens in early March. The gardens I chose are at least occasionally open to the public as parts of tours led by the San Diego Floral Association.

SALLY LONG Sally is a petite woman with a sense of order about her. Perhaps she’s in her late 40s. Her speech is precise, and her garden, which contains 280 roses, conveys an impression of order. It is a rose garden, and Sally is a rose person.

The greenhouse contains a gorgeous waterfall and tiers of palms, cycads, ferns, bromeliads, and an occasional begonia.

Sally collects rose sculptures and artifacts, paints roses, speaks about them at garden clubs, judges rose shows. She belongs to ten rose societies, and she writes a bulletin out of the East County Rose Society.

Sally’s been judging for ten years. She travels as far away as New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Her friends are rose people. Going out to dinner is a rose experience. How does her husband Jim deal with this? “He’s not a rose person, but he’s such a nice guy they include him in everything.”

“The next weekend here comes semitruck after semitruck with all the specimen palms I had located and dug up all over the city."

Sally and Jim live in East San Diego, in a new development that floats in comfort and shelter above the every-street-is-the-street-to-the-airport banality. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m going into the Twilight Zone, coming up from the hectic street to the gate, then everybody waves and children play and everybody goes slow.” Her neighbors are teachers, policemen, and firemen, and they have an unusual camaraderie. They throw parties together, for example. Sally colonizes their gardens. Across the street grow 60 of her roses, and they extend down the block.

If he’s starting a garden for someone else, he’s likely to look in their attic, basement, or garage to find objects that make focal points or add interest to a wall. Metal — old and rusted. Glass and crystals. Sculpture, figures out of coat hangers.

I visit Sally’s garden in March, an attractive time, I think, when the bones of the garden are visible along with the sculptural shapes of the pruned roses and the textures and colors of their leaves. As opposed to some, I don’t think roses are ugly unless they are blooming. Still, I can see that a month or two will transform her garden into masses of blooms, level on level of them.

We sit on her porch, drinking tangerine juice. Her garden is composed of a variety of plantings that flow into each other around a lawn. There are no square lines. Sally was full of demurs, a defining characteristic of the obsessed gardener — I’m redoing that corner, I’m planning a bridge, etc.

“My garden is small but I get lost in it. Each small section is like a page of a book. It keeps changing.”

The San Diego climate will accommodate most anything, and there is no time-honored vernacular here, like the cottage garden in England or formal garden in France. Since you can choose anything, why roses?

Sally is stumped. “I think they chose me,” she says in a wondering voice. It’s a satisfying answer. I have come to the right place. Dante, that fanatical lover, said what we love chooses us, not the other way around, and he added that we are named by that love.

“I’ve always been an Anglophile. I call mine a cottage garden, California-style. A lot of English plants will not grow here, so we substitute."

Sally continues, “Their blooms are good for cutting, good for gifts, and they bloom a long time. They are forgiving, they rarely die, they are all different; there’s a beginning, middle, and end — if you are having a bad year, you cut them down and start over. You get a lot from roses.”

When I was a child in the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley, I had a garden. There was a hopelessness about my garden because everything in sight was landscaped so brutally—a patch of sad dichondra with a yucca dropped in the middle. My little garden was not much to hurl at the great void that seemed to prosper in my neighbors’ yards.

She likes the topiary to be a surprise — Peter Rabbit jumping through the bushes. Agatha gives a picture to a nursery in Mission Hills. A craftsman in Tijuana makes the frame of heavy-gauge wire.

Do you ever have that feeling?

Sally applies my question about loss of meaning to her pressing issue. “Yes, when this gets out of control, I feel like I can’t even get started. That’s why I broke it up into individual gardens. Sometimes I’ll do it in order.”

Sally studies in a graduate program in educational technology — her specialty is computers — and she develops books for publishing companies. What is the common thread behind these activities? “Computers. Because few people in gardening clubs know about them, and I love computers. My newsletter is done on PageMaker. I even computerize my lists of garden tasks.”

“I’m reaching the point where I’m thinking, hey, I don’t have that much longer, and I want to have this particular rose before I go or before I have to quit gardening."

That brings us back to the neatness of her garden, though I’m sure some of the roses have different ideas. “I get rid of them. I don’t like a rose that’s not orderly. That’s why old roses and I don’t get along.”

I’m the opposite, I like the roses that fall every which way. Sally also prefers a disorganized look, a cottage garden look, but not in her own back yard. In the poetry of Sally’s obsession, the desire for control contends with the excesses of massed blooms and fragrance — spicy, lemony, fruity, perfumy, heady. She’s aware of this contradiction. “I don’t want something growing across my path. I’ll whack it off.” She’s looking at me levelly, and I laugh with anxiety.

Her yard is a third of an acre, not huge. It’s fill. The whole area is DG — decomposed granite. It’s not a clay soil, it’s nothing, so she had to do lots of amending.

“We brought 100 roses from our previous home in the middle of summer and didn’t lose one. They were in black pots, and we watered twice a day for six months.” It’s a fallacy that roses can only be moved in their dormant season. Jim moved them — obliging husband.

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