The many gardens I have left

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Like most modern city dwellers, my husband and I moved from place to place as our family burgeoned. In each place I planted gardens of annuals and perennials, trees, flowering vines, and bulbs. Four houses, which we called our homes for as little as seven years and as long as 37, received my horticultural ministrations. I now confine such talents to a balcony in southern California, where I am limited to potted plants.

It all began with my mother and her gardening efforts. Throughout the Great Depression, she saved money in her "dime bank," a tubular metal contraption into which she slotted a dime a day until its capacity of $10 had been reached. Out of this bounty she took a few dollars now and then to buy pansies, ranunculus, and salvias. From her I learned my love of planting – but Mama's gardens are another story, belonging to my childhood.

The first garden of my adult years was a four-by-eight-foot plot beneath the outside open staircase that led to the apartment above our own, in a small complex on the border of Beverly Hills. This scrap of land abutted our front porch. It was a natural place for a pocket garden. I set to work zealously.

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I pulled weeds and spaded in leaf mold, peat moss, and manure. I planted snapdragons and stocks. I was fabulously successful. My snaps and stocks, responding to virgin soil and filtered sunshine, grew as high as my waist. I took a course in flower arranging at the local night school and created artistic bouquets for our home and scented nosegays for friends. This gardening idyll ended shortly, with the start of World War II. My husband joined the United States Navy, and I followed his pre-oceanic travels for as long as I could.

Fast-forward to my first experience as a landowner. The war was still going on, and Joe was somewhere in the Pacific. I had a job at the North American Aviation Company, which gave me the privilege of buying into a tract of small war-workers' houses in West Los Angeles.

I became a "Victory Gardener," growing vegetables to help the war effort. By this time I had two babies, a part-time job, and a new house. Nevertheless, I flung myself upon the land and planted tomatoes, eggplants, squashes, butter beans, and lettuce. Without any experience of vegetable gardening, I was not a great success. Humongous, seemingly prehistoric caterpillars attacked my baby tomatoes. My little son ate the rest, green. Snails consumed my lettuce, and my eggplants never took hold. Only the squashes and beans provided food for our table.

When Joe came home from the war, I went back to ornamentals.

My husband wasn't much of a gardener, but he helped with the heavy work. Together we planted a sweet gum tree (also known as liquidambar) in the front yard. Our children loved the name "sweet gum" and were delighted when, one morning, they found sticks of chewing gum tied to its branches. On George Washington's birthday one year we celebrated as a family by planting a flowering cherry tree. (It needed cold winters, and never did well.) We also put in a lawn and dozens of irises close to our front porch.

I took some of these iris rhizomes to our next, larger, house, as well as cuttings from jade plants and pelargoniums. Again I planted a liquidambar, for its bright red leaves in the fall. For the center of the front yard, I chose a shapely oriental rain tree, which looked like a large bonsai at first, but later grew broad and willowy, casting a nice shade under which children could rest.

I trellised a brilliant scarlet bougainvillaea against a corner of the garage.

At our next-to-last and still-larger house, I put jasmine under our bedroom window for sweet-scented nights, a hedge of coral oleanders for privacy along an alleyway, guava bushes for their delicious fruit and soft gray-green leaves, and, yes, another liquidambar. I thought we'd stay there forever, but my husband had long dreamed of a place at the beach. And so we moved to Venice, Calif.

It was an old house with many established plantings. A shaggy-barked twisted melaleuca tree grew in the front yard. I trimmed, thinned, and shaped it myself. When passersby on Ocean Front Walk paused to admire it, they leaned over our low, stucco wall and discovered my "primrose path" planted just inside, glowing in brilliant reds, blues, pinks, and yellows. I had brought irises with me again, especially my old-fashioned purple "flags" garnered from Cousin Audrey's house back in Louisville, Ky.

As my last act in that wonderful place – just as movers were putting my furniture in the van, I got out all the wildflower seeds I had stored in the refrigerator, "freebies" from various environmental groups. There were poppies, lupines, buttercups, and wallflowers. I scattered them broadly in the front, back, and side yards. The new owner would have a treat in store, come spring.

I planted a bit of myself wherever I lived. My trees, vines, and bulbs live on without the help of my loving hands. Now and then I go on a little pilgrimage through my old neighborhoods to check out the health of my liquidambars, rosy bottle-brushes, flaming bougainvillaeas, and amaryllises (they have propagated almost shockingly in my last, Venice, garden).

Maybe someday I'll have another real garden. Meanwhile, I think of myself as a sort of female Johnny Appleseed whose efforts at beautification I hope will gladden people's hearts for years to come.

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