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The Dry Garden: Novelist Michelle Huneven's foothill paradise

April 23, 2010 |  7:20 am

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Read the novel "Blame" and it comes as no surprise that author Michelle Huneven gardens, or that she is Southern Californian. There is no inventing the familiarity in the descriptions of buckwheat “drying to a dark iron red,” the hurl-me weight after a rain of a clump of freshly pulled long grass, or how wildfire embers fly “like fat, radiant insects.”

The surprise comes on seeing her foothill garden for the first time, and realizing that such an overwhelmingly sensuous world is so accessible -- that we all could all fill the land around our homes with scents, textures, flowers, fruit and vegetables if only we gave up lawn.Dry_garden6
 
Moreover, we could create this kind of wonderland at a fraction of the cost involved in watering and mowing turf.

One needn’t necessarily even learn new plants or haunt specialist nurseries. In Huneven’s world, gardening isn’t a quest for exotica. The plants that she uses -- junipers, citrus, roses, cactus, lettuce -- are available at most nurseries. It’s the way that she uses them that makes the land surrounding her house a garden instead of a yard.

When she bought a small house on a sizable lot in Altadena in 2001, the yard was dominated by weeds and crab grass. After pricing what it would take to get rid of the weeds using a popular herbicide ($4,000), she turned to a local supplier of stable manure. It took 20 loads (total cost $700) from a neighbor who became known as her “poop boyfriend.” She kept applying it until she built up a 10-inch layer, which at once suffocated and cooked the weeds before maturing into a perfect planting medium.

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Then came design, her own. She describes the approach as having been inspired by La Purisima Mission in Lompoc. “I’m not sure if this is a definition mission garden,” she said, laughing, “but it’s my definition of a mission garden.”

To the front, where the sun showers down uninterrupted, there is a garden dedicated to summer crops of corn and tomatoes. It was bare  in chilly early April, save heavy mulch and the drip irrigation lines marking last year’s harvest.

Climb a trellised porch covered with clambering roses, enter a shallow house full of comfortable jumble and almost immediately a courtyard beckons through a pair of glass doors.

This is an outdoor dining room but also feels like the heart of the home, a reception, with a gently gurgling fountain whose arteries lead to a loosely planted series of garden rooms. With the exception of a large lettuce bed, these rooms are usually planted with mixed beds -- very mixed.

“My structural ideal is where you have these islands of planting and each one is pinned down by a fruit tree, then you plant your vegetables or flowers or both to relate to that tree,” she said. “So you can have apple with roses and foxglove, or olive pinned by a rose and sage garden.”

These fruit tree anchors are such fecund sentinels that it’s impossible to get through her garden without eating. Right now, it’s the tangerines that she plucks and thrusts in your hand. As she chats, it becomes clear that gardening somehow informs the way she sees the world, whether writing or cooking dinner. “When you cut open an orange or a tomato or a cucumber, it’s like jewels,” she said. “They’re so beautiful. People who don’t cook don’t know what a shock it is to cut open a blood orange or to peel a golden beet.”
Her special weakness is for roses, with Pat Austin, Madame Alfred Carriere and Gertrude Jekyll being favorites. “Gertrude Jekyll was this very big, ugly woman who made the most beautiful gardens in the world,” she said. “I kind of conflate her with my grandmother. The rose named after her is a middle to dark pink. It’s a slightly flat rose that smells just wonderful. And it’s a hardy bush. It took me about four or five years to fall in love with it, but I did.”Dry_garden_fence

Huneven is so potty about roses that she attends rosarian meetings. “The thing about rosarians that I love is that they all have a sense of humor. They know that roses are ridiculous. It’s not a life-or- death thing, yet they love it, they’re unabashed. At one conference, I sat next to this San Marino matron. She was highly coiffed and seemed chilly, but by the end of the lecture she was leaning into me and showing me roses on her iPhone.”

“What other luxury is such a bargain?” she demanded. “You can go to just about any nursery, buy a rose, then plant it in an hour and a half. Then you have years of pleasure.” The suggestion that they are difficult to grow reminds her of a remark that she heard in a lecture about the old roses of cemeteries. “If dead people can grow them, anyone can.”

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The secret to the idiosyncratic, tumbling beauty of Huneven’s garden might just lie in the irrigation, or lack of it. It’s hard to imagine a sprinkler system that could cope with mission gardening, Huneven style. The upshot is conservation. Not only is there no thirsty turf, water is not applied wantonly. There are drip lines out front for row crops. “In the backyard,” she said, “it’s me and the hose. But you know what? It’s the way you get to see your garden. You pay this intimate nurturing attention to it.” There followed a pause, a small smile, before she added, “Maybe a little more often than you want to.”

-- Emily Green

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Photo credit: Emily Green

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