This was written by my sweet sis Mickey Revenaugh last year before our mother passed away.
There’s always been a backyard garden at 321 Oleander, from the day we moved there in 1968 and our Mom planted Swiss chard along the brick wall where the previous tenants had created a bed for decorative shrubs that never took root. Perhaps they got discouraged by the intense arid heat of the Central California summers, but that never stopped Mom. In no time, that Swiss chard grew as tall as she was and its bitter boiled green leaves found their way onto our dinner plates night after night.
Mom had one full-time job as a social worker and another full-time job trying to keep us kids in one piece on her own, but she always managed to keep a garden growing. Three kinds of tomatoes, sage, snap peas, and cukes. Hollyhocks to the eaves of the house, four o’clocks on the side, hens and chickens, an army of irises. After we’d all grown and gone and she’d retired, Mom’s garden got more and more elaborate, its pickable sweets and gewgaws the delight of visiting grandkids.
(Above: Mom overseeing the first garden renovation by her enthusiastic grown children)
That’s what made the tangle of empty pots and weeds in the backyard so disheartening after Mom broke her hip. Taking turns caring for her, we’d look out the back window at the desolate patch of brown and see only loss, decline. It was a relief that first year after her fall when first summer turned the whole town sepia and then winter left the surrounding croplands fallow. Just wouldn’t have seemed right for things to go on growing when our Mom was struck still.
But when spring came around again, our eldest sister couldn’t take it anymore. She paid the guy who cuts our Mom’s grass an extra fifty to come back with his Rototiller and turned the dead garden into a blank soil canvas. Then she headed back to Alaska for a month’s respite with the parting words, "If you feel like thinking about a garden…"
Our little brother, now a grown genius, had the first shift. Knowing that hydration is destiny in the Central Valley, he created an intricate homemade system of underground soaker hoses and multiple faucet heads so the whole 10 x 40 tilled bed could be deep-watered with one turn of the wrist. He also transformed Mom’s various abandoned garden decorations into planter boxes, trellises, and dividers, all ready for the plants to come.
It was my turn next, and I tackled the task with my two favorite tools: a computer and a credit card. I made a more-or-less to scale diagram of the garden with icons for various plants – red circles for tomatoes, mottled green ovals for zucchini, sticks with smiley faces for sunflowers – then posted them on Google Docs and asked my siblings to help plot out the plants. Then I hit both the local nursery and Home Depot for a cornucopia of seeds and seedlings. I was used to gardening in my over-shaded New York yard and believed in having back-ups to back-ups because half the stuff would never even come up anyway.
Actual planting was guided by our middle sister, the only one of us who’d ever grown a serious garden in a climate like this one. She’d even co-gardened with our Mom as a high schooler way back in the day, so she knew about things like planting the various vined things apart from each other, and when to put a paper plate under the head of a cantaloupe.
We all had a part to play – with Mom bemusedly supervising from her bed on the other side of the house. We’d bring her the updated plan printouts and empty seed packets, seek her advice on the relative merits of cherry tomatoes vs. beefsteaks. (Plant both, she advised, so we did.) Once the seeds were in the ground with their careful markers and water system had its test run, there was nothing to do but wait.
(Above: Our younger brother and mom)
Within a week, there was very little brown left to see on our garden canvas – things were sprouting like crazy. Within a month it was clear that every single zucchini seed had taken root and was competing to produce the biggest leaves, the most blossoms, the fattest vines. The seed tomatoes were in a race with the store-bought plants to see who’d put out the most fruit first. Sunflowers shot up 4 feet, then 6, then 10 and 12 by mid-summer. A riot of cantaloupe turned the makeshift trellis into a mountain of green festooned with perfect melon spheres. A forest of dill bumped up against two kinds of basil tall and bushy enough to be mistaken for a fragrant hedgerow. And we all agreed that the standing too close to the pumpkin patch was hazardous – the vines were growing so fast it seemed they could wrap around your legs before you had time to move.
(Above: My mother and I in the garden circa 1977)
All summer we harvested zucchini the size of small children, tomatoes by the bushel, herbs, melons, even a cucumber or two. Although the carrots only grew a couple inches long, their greens came up past our knees. The pumpkins were huge way before their time, and a few mated with their squash cousins to created pumpkinis (or zuchkins - we were never sure which). We set up a Free Veggies stand out on the front sidewalk near the foot of the ramp we’d built for Mom when she’d first fallen, back when we were sure she’d be tooling around with her walker in no time. We’d bring each new astonishment to her bedside and say, invariably, “Can you believe this came out of YOUR garden?” She was the only one who seemed not the least bit surprised.
Left: Mom, the gentle gardener 1926-2010
Now another autumn is upon us, and the Rototiller guy has come and gone again. The abandoned weed patch that became the mother of all gardens is now a rich brown canvas once again. Like our Mom, it’s ready for whatever comes next.
We will always remember you in your garden...love you mom.