I’ve lived in Atascadero for seventeen years and towards the end of every winter I become a fretful Demeter waiting for Persephone: unconvinced that this time the decimated, disconsolate yard will emerge from Hades.
It always seems to, mostly. The fragile, fragrant white apricot blossoms peek out first, their temerity usually rewarded by a crushing late rain that bruises and browns before hurling them to the ground. But the bees descend swiftly when it’s the only tree flowering, and though every year I think this time was not enough time, every late spring it’s heavy laden with fruit.
Society garlic and day lilies poke up green and vibrant from the mulch, followed soon after by starbursts of mauve and amber. The twin purple robes bud and break out into splendid tumbling clusters of blossoms before unfurling their leaves (or sometimes the other way around). By the time the Japanese maple has opened out like unclenching fists I feel able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Atascadero weather has a mean streak like a bully hurling relentless insults but never throwing a punch. If it reached the lows of Bodie or the highs of Death Valley you could throw up your hands and proclaim winter and summer no country for growing things. As it is the winters never get quite cold enough or the summers quite hot enough to absolve a gardener of guilt. You always feel that if you’d planted something a little different, it would have survived the freezes or the triple-digit heat waves intact.
And it’s true, if you want a yard full of nothing but rosemary and privets. But the seventeen degrees mornings come only once every few years, so I lull myself into a false sense of security and plant cyclamen and marguerite daisies and impatiens. And by the time I realize the temperature’s plunged, I’m elbow deep in frozen pipes and coddling frost-shocked plants has slid shamefully down the scale of priorities.
On the other end of the spectrum are the 110 degree Augusts. Knowing they’re a nearly annual occurrence, I have enough sense not to indulge my love of moss or birches or maidenhair ferns. Scotch broom and bamboo are another matter. “It’ll be fine,” I assure myself, “as long as they have enough water.” And it probably would be if the squirrels didn’t treat the drippers like little black candy buttons, their theft unnoticed until something is shriveled.
Now there’s a new snake in the garden: the drought. Though snowless, Atascadero winters are chilly enough for some plants to go dormant. But this was the first time I can remember things merely looking dead. The leaves of deciduous maples and sycamores didn’t burst into color and fall, they just withered on their branches. Drought tolerant oleander and eucalyptus were sad brown studies against the ground and sky not just in our yard, but everywhere I looked. I read that after several mostly rainless years salt in the soil creeps up toward the surface; plants absorb it through their roots and are effectively poisoned. Perhaps that’s what happened this year.
It’s April and we’ve had just enough late season rain for the vinca to spread its carpet back under the trees. The valley oaks and sycamores have budded and leafed and mostly hide the drooping eucalyptus and dead pines that dot the landscape. They’re promising us – perhaps – an El Niño this fall. But it’s a little hard not to worry that Hades still has his claw digging into Persephone’s heel, this tentative, dry spring.