Clay Gardens

Over the years, I’ve thought long and hard about a possible name for our garden. I’ve toyed with using the names of favorite plants (I come back to columbine a lot) and combining with words like creek or hill (Columbine Creek, Columbine Hill), but nothing really resonates.

Purple and yellow flower of a columbine (Aquilegia) hybrid
Columbine, a longtime favorite

I’ve named all of the individual smaller gardens in our yard, usually with something ‘descriptive and boring like…south rock garden, north rock garden, brick garden, orchard garden, etc., all so I can maintain a haphazard database of what is planted where.

Bright orange flowers with yellow centers contrast with grey-green foliage on the illustrious Helianthemum Henfield Brilliant
The sun garden on the SW side of the house
Bright orange flowers with yellow centers contrast with grey-green foliage on the illustrious Helianthemum Henfield Brilliant
Helianthemum nummularium 'Henfield Brilliant'

But, nothing cohesive to unite the chaos, so to speak. I guess I could name it all after the  blog, Botanica Chaotica, but that doesn’t resonate either.

Then, one rainy day in April, as I was digging up Camassia bulbs and cursing the amount of sticky wet clay that was glomming onto my shovel, gloves, and shoes, I was thinking about things we have in abundance …horsetail (oh god, so much horsetail), rodents (mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels), clay…

Sticky, wet clay glommed onto shovel, shoes, and gloves
Heavy shovel loaded with clay makes digging a chore in winter/spring. Gloves become so encased in slippery mud that I spend several minutes trying to literally shake the gloves off my hands.

And, suddenly I thought – what about Clay Gardens? Of course, that made me think of one of my favorite movies, Grey Gardens.

Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie) of Grey Gardens

For those of you who haven’t watched it, the movie is about the eccentric socialite Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), a cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who came upon hard times and lived with her mother (Big Edie) and a bunch of cats and raccoons in an old, dilapidated mansion known as Grey Gardens. It’s considered one of the best documentaries of all time.

Similarly, the name reminds me of one of my favorite Rufus Wainwright songs from his Poses album, also entitled Grey Gardens.

L, of course, is less than enthused about the name. Said it is too reminiscent of a bunch of slobs living in a dump surrounded by an unkempt, abandoned garden. But, too be honest, sometimes that’s how I feel as I look around the yard. Nothing matches the perfect garden I’ve envisioned in my mind and I tend to obsess over the messier, less attractive parts that I dislike. They are always there, nibbling at the back of my mind.

Board keeping soil from eroding
Not a priority - ugly, half rotted boards keeping the soil from slumping completely into the grass

Over the years, we’ve hauled truckloads of junk away that the previous occupants left behind, so things are slowly improving. I find trash buried everywhere. Bits of broken glass, nails, bottles, cans, bones, shells, spoons, dishes, saw blades…decades worth of garbage. I’ve kept some of the more interesting items to perhaps make a shadow box or some other type of assemblage art piece (someday).

Often, it feels like I am not making any meaningful progress as I flit from one superficial, yet seemingly urgent task to the next – new plants need constant attention (it’s horribly dry already), there are seedlings to pot up, weeding everywhere, blah blah blah…it feels like I never really get to tackle (or finish) the bigger projects on my list.

Some projects are too large or costly (putting in a cistern) or are enough out of my skillset (renovating a shed) that they won’t happen anytime soon. Some projects are waiting for inspiration because I don’t know what to do with the space yet (see rotting boards above). And, there other things that take priority over everything else (new heat pump, new roof,  travel). The list of things to do grows until it is too overwhelming for a perfectionist to even begin. My brain compounds lists like credit card companies compound interest.

Building a deer fence in the woods
Time to build a gate between woods and the garden, a transition between order and chaos

A new attitude

Of course, I realize that things aren’t as bad as they seem. I, like many gardeners, tend to focus on the flaws and forget how much progress has actually been made. I also repeatedly fall into the comparison trap. We’ve been here 15 years, but our garden isn’t as fabulous as “someone else’s” much younger garden. I forget that other gardeners may have more resources and time than we do. If I refocus my attention, I can find a lot that I do like about our garden. I just need to take the time to appreciate it.

Rock garden with blooming Penstemon rupicola
The side rock garden, Basaltica. Weeds in the front, rock party in the back.

I’ve taken for granted the progress that has already been made. For example, although some parts need repairing, we do have a functional deer fence and haven’t had a hooved incursion in years. Other accomplishments include:

  1. Creating multiple rock gardens, perennial beds, and shrub borders, most of which look better than I allow myself to acknowledge.
  2. Building raised beds (2009 and 2012).
  3. Installing pavers for walkways (2013-2014 and 2019).
  4. Building a small greenhouse from a kit (2014).
  5. Removing several dangerous trees (2017 and 2021).
  6. New bridge (2022).
I've installed six new fence posts so far this year

To combat the feeling of not making progress, this year I’ve decided to work on at least one of my top three projects each weekend, everything else be damned.

  1. Finish upgrading the deer fence in the back yard, including building and installing three gates.
  2. Install five fence panels in the front yard.
  3. Make progress on replacing weedy gravel paths with pavers. This year’s goal is to complete the area between the raised beds and the rock garden next to the house (upcoming post).

Of course, something unexpected always happens to throw a monkey wrench into the works. One of the shelving systems that came with the greenhouse collapsed after 9 years of use – looks like I need to add making a new shelving system to my list…

Result of a collapsed greenhouse bench
Not as bad as it looks. Surprisingly little damage.

This year, I’ve also recognized something about my approach to gardening. I am exhausting myself by fighting what this site intrinsically wants to be. I’m not going to achieve a perfect, orderly garden with only 2 days per week of input. It just isn’t going to happen. Clay Gardens is a wild place. It will always be a harsh site with a constant onslaught of weeds and pests. The sooner I accept that and stop fighting so much, the less angst I will be inflicting upon myself about how imperfect everything is. How do I go more with the flow and not against it? How do I incorporate and appreciate more wildness in the garden? How do I enjoy and be grateful for what is already here? It’s time to embrace some of the chaos. That’s the journey I hope to start documenting as I move forward.

Green ferns, trees, and bushes in the woods behind the house
Woodland border behind the house

Ok, that’s it on this topic for now. It seems appropriate to end this post referencing Grey Gardens by talking about cats. One, in particular. I want to take this opportunity to thank Jacques, our cat for the past 15 years, who passed on May 12th.  Social, obsessive compulsive to a fault, yet also paradoxically supremely chill when he chose to be. He was the smartest of the five cats I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, opening cabinets and drawers from an early age, always greeting us at the door, and, for the past three years, my meditation buddy. He was embodiment of a near perfect meditator, rarely letting the busy, loud, and obnoxious external world disturb his inner core of peace. He taught me the value of living in the present and it’s become a core part of my practice to meditate like a cat. I can’t think of a better honor. He is dearly missed.

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Kris P

    I’m so sorry that you’ve lost Jacques. Each cat brings its own unique character to the relationship and is stored in our hearts when they leave us all too soon.

    I think you’ve accomplished a LOT with your garden, Jerry, especially when you have limited time to work on it. “Clay Garden” is a descriptive title, immediately alerting readers to one of the biggest challenges you face so that’s useful, although I have to say I like “Botanica Chaotica” a lot – most gardeners, if they’re honest, can identify with that! I’ve considered names for my garden in the past but the only one I recall coming up with was “Aeoniumville”, a reference to my all-too-common practice of sticking Aeonium cuttings in empty spots whenever I can’t immediately come up with anything better. I love that your garden is surrounded by a wild woodland area. Although people often comment about the view I have of the Los Angeles harbor, the garden of my dreams would be a woodland area.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      I’m probably going to continue not calling my garden anything in particular, but the name Clay Gardens stirred up so many thoughts that I wanted to write them down. Botanica Chaotica seemed apropos in so many ways as a blog name because I knew I would be unable to keep to just one particular topic and because, gardening very much feels like I am trying to reign in, arrange, and sculpt nature’s chaos to create something beautiful. And, as soon as I think I have something “finished”, nature takes its turn at my garden canvas and morphs it into something else I wasn’t planning on. I realize now that I’ve been holding the reins a little too tightly. Gardening has been such a useful metaphor for my approach to life.

  2. danger garden

    Thank you for letting us know about Jacques, and a little more about him. I am so sorry he’s not physically with you and L any longer.

    “My brain compounds lists like credit card companies compound interest”… OMG. I am going to be working on that one for awhile. I am very like you in that regard. As for Clay Gardens I wasn’t immediately on board (not that it matters), but once you tied it into Grey Gardens now I LOVE it. I still bristle at the idea my garden IS danger garden, but it’s a name that resonates with those that need to name.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Even my lists have lists…

      Yeah, in reality, I’m not really going to call our place anything, except if I decide to have an open garden someday. It’s just too complex and ever-changing to have just one name at this point.

  3. Denise Maher

    Just don’t serve “pate” in Clay/Grey Gardens!! 😉 And speaking of cats, that’s a lovely tribute to Jacques. What a great guy. I’m not familiar with how big your property is, but it looks fairly large. I say definitely go with a wilder approach and give yourself a break on maintenance. Your idea to create a gate for transition I feel is the right direction. The rock garden is fantastic. You’ve done great things already!

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      No pate, no worries there! But, we might serve ceviche made with tuna from a can!
      We’ve got 2/3 of an acre. That’s a really good point as that’s a lot of space to maintain with only 2 days a week. And, yes, I need a break in maintenance. I am installing some hardscaping now that will hopefully reduce some of the weeding.

  4. hb

    All of the above comments say it better than I can. A lovely meditation on where you are now with your garden. We all need to take the time to do that. We get so focused on what grabs our attention, or seems like fun, or many other things, that we forget the why of it all. Clay Gardens as takeoff on Grey Gardens, good one!

    Jacques sounds like he was an extraordinary cat. You were lucky to be part of his world. 🙂

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      I think it’s my version of the mid-life crisis, recognizing that I can’t continue to throw 30- or 40-year old energy into an endless abyss. Time to work smarter, not harder, if that’s possible.

  5. Linda BRAZILL

    What a great post. We all have variations on your garden problems, time, weather etc. This year nothing is getting done here but watering. Watering in June! I haven’t had a cat for a long time, but I still have many pleasant memories. Thanks for your comments on my blog. Just had my second cataract surgery and am not back up to speed yet

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      From your blog, it sounds like recovery is happening fairly quickly. Glad it went well. We’ve had an exasperatingly dry spring too. Almost no rain at all in May, which is very unusual.

  6. CS

    Thank you for reminding me…..I’m not going to achieve a perfect, orderly garden with only 2 days per week of input.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Plus, for some reason, I can’t seem to put in 12-hour work days in the garden any more!

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