Another Day in the Country
The old hydrangeas
© Another Day in the Country
Almost 50 years ago, we built our house on the hill above the Napa Valley. We did most of the work ourselves; this was the only way we could afford to build a house on our salary.
First, we built the basic house. Then, whenever we’d get a little money for extra work or some occasion like a birthday, we’d save it up until we had enough to do something more.
Eventually, we put in sidewalks, a paved driveway, and a deck. After our 25th anniversary, we enlarged the deck. If we didn’t have any money at all to improve the property, we did what we called “stacking rocks.”
Our house is built on the side of a volcanic mountain so there are plenty of rocks. In fact, we had to use a jackhammer to put in the foundation. Rocks are everywhere in the shallow soil, and the minute you try to tame the land you’ve got rocks to deal with. It has long been a custom in the Napa Valley to build rock fences, making use of all the rocks you dug up, especially around the vineyards. The fences are pretty much decorative, unable to keep much out.
The Mexican workers, who more and more populate the valley, are fine rock wall artisans. Instead of piling up a stack of rocks to clear a field, they make walls that are absolutely beautiful, running mile after mile along the road, fitting the rocks together to make what we call a “dry” wall because there is no mortar in between the rocks. It’s just dirt.
Their walls are probably two feet (or more) wide. I always envied them their skill and their endless supply of rocks. We neither had the skill nor did we have as many rocks, but that didn’t stop us from building dry rock walls up against the enbankment of our “tamed” portion of yard, or lower, single-sided walls around flower beds and trees.
Whenever we wanted to do something to improve the place without spending money, we’d build another wall, hunting across the mountain slope for just the right size and shape of rocks. At the end of the day we’d feel so proud of ourselves.
“Look what we did! Aren’t they lovely?” we’d say.
The miracle is, fifty years later, these walls are still standing, blending into the hillside, as if they’ve been there forever.
Once the sidewalks were in place, we made a low rock wall along the west side of the house for a flowerbed. Dirt on this rocky hillside also was a premium, but I planted hydrangeas all along that wall. It must have taken 10 good-sized plants to fill the space, which meant we once again waited for some special occasion to have the cash to buy plants from the nursery.
Sadly, those plants were never particularly happy along that wall. Even though our whole yard is shaded by old, old native trees — oak, pine, fir, bay, madrone — there was just enough sunshine coming through in the afternoon to make the flowers wilt in the heat, with the soil a little too thin, which kept them from flourishing.
My daughter is an intermittent gardener, for lack of time and money, too, so when I moved to Kansas and the people who work all day and aren’t home inhabited the house, the poor hydrangeas suffered even more. Little by little, in spite of Jana watering and me fertilizing when I came to visit, the plants bit the dust, all except three.
Whenever I come back to California in the summer to be nanny for my grandson, I’m also the resident gardener. Today I was watering those three surviving hydrangeas. They are just blooming their heads off. Those plants are over 40 years old and they’ve lived through drought, frost, and neglect.
We don’t know how they’ve made it because the soil is so poor on the hillside; but they’ve grown their roots deep into the shale and humus and found hidden nourishment somehow, somewhere.
It’s another day in the country and I want to be like those old hydrangeas, just blooming my head off, with my roots buried deep in familiar, though sometimes bleak, soil, hanging in there, blessing the world, no matter what, as long as I can!