Cool Green Gardens

Long Strange Trip To The Garden

L to R: Steve Diamond, Ron Ziskin, me, Scott Whitman, Mike Abramson
L to R: Steve Diamond, Ron Ziskin, me, Scott Whitman, Mike Abramson

Back in July, I blogged about finding an old drawing from my first landscape design class and the memories it triggered. From summers in the mountains to discovering I had a sense of rhythm, it didn’t look much like a gardening column. I said it was “Part One in what will likely be a sporadic series.” Well, I’m done “sporadickling” and ready to pick up the trail where I left off.

Some kids obsess about sports or rock collecting or astronomy or hedge fund trading. For me it was “all drumming, all the time.” Bongos were the start, then a pair of drumsticks banging on anything that made noise. I studied jazz, Dixieland, classical, big band, bebop, surf, rock. I even played a polka gig dressed in lederhosen. (Thankfully, no photos survive)

Here’s my high school rock band, A Little Bit of Sound. We not only won the biggest battle of the bands in LA, but we ended up opening for The Doors in San Diego.

I stayed with music into my twenties, doing studio recordings, nightclubs, and clocked thousands of cross-country miles on the road. One year I toured with the opening act for the Jackson 5. (Don’t get too impressed. We were the band everyone wished would get off the state so Michael would come out.)

What’s this have to do with gardens? Alas, very little, but I’m getting there. I kick myself now, knowing that while I was living out my rock and roll fantasy, I’d come within flower plucking distance of places like Longwood Gardens, the JC Raulston Arboretum, the Memphis Botanical Garden, and scores of places I’d love to visit today.

Life Lesson #1: Hindsight is 20-20, and as George Bernard Shaw reminds us, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Chlorophyll Enters My Bloodstream

Working in clubs and studios in LA left my daytime hours pretty wide open. It was the early 70s and houseplants were all the rage. Like everyone else, I had miles of jute macramé hanging from my ceiling, spilling over with spider plants and creeping Charlies, weeping fig trees slowly dying in the dark living room corner, and terrariums stuffed with dainty tropical foliage.mother earths book cover

I was hooked, hauling my ever-expanding plant collection into the bathroom and steaming up the room to simulate the climate in a Tarzan movie. My bible was the Mother Earth Hassle-Free Indoor Plant Book (I still have it somewhere). Soon I was diagnosing nutrient deficiencies and dispatching dreaded mealy bugs with alcohol-soaked Q-tips. I was a good daddy.

Asian Influence

If you run into me someday, ply me with a couple of single-malt peated Irish whiskeys and I might share the Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas-like story that brought the exquisite art of bonsai into my life. The PG-rated version is my unsuccessful attempt to create a custom turtle bowl. Left with a very wet floor and an empty bonsai pot, I found a copy of Sunset’s bonsai book and tried my hand at torturing a shore juniper (Juniperus conferta) into submission. To my surprise, it survived, thrived, and looked pretty cool, at least to my untrained eye.

That’s when horticulture sunk its hooks deep into my psyche. LA has a pretty robust Japanese-American community and I yearned to learn more about bonsai. I discovered Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery on Sawtelle Boulevard, where I studied with the American bonsai master, John Naka.

Bonsai opened the door to Japanese gardensGoshin (and sushi and sake!). I succumbed to an aesthetic that centered on a respect for nature and natural forms, and the subtlety that is imbued within Japanese culture.

Drumming by night, visiting gardens and cultivating plants by day, I was one happy boy. Music was still fun, but having been around the business since I was a teen, I was well aware of the entertainment industry’s flake factor. I had what I now call my “premature midlife crisis”, thinking seriously about how long I could make a living in that world. What would happen when I found myself in middle age, hoping the next wedding gig would come through so I could make rent?

Off To School

So I put down my drumsticks and enrolled in a two-year degree program in ornamental horticulture at LA Pierce College. It didn’t take long for the phone to stop ringing and music gigs dried up almost immediately. While taking soil, botany, entomology, and drafting classes, I found that my real passion was design. Maybe it had to do with my exposure to Japanese gardens and their ability to balance practical needs with beauty and a connection to the natural environment.

The drawing that triggered this meander down Memory Lane was class-work from my design program. As ham-handed and naïve as it looks to me now, that sheet of paper is a dot that connects to thousands of other dots that shaped who I am today.

With my music income gone, I needed a job, so I sheepishly asked George Yamaguchi if he’d hire me to work in the retail sales part of the nursery. Not a man of many words (the few he muttered under his breath were in Japanese), he said yes. I was one fortunate student, absorbing the “book learnin'” side of my new profession while experiencing the practical side of helping homeowners with their own planting and design problems.

Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, downtown Santa Barbara

After earning my associate degree and suffering through one more 110-degree San Fernando Valley summer, I sent out resumes, packed my bonsai collection and my cob web-covered drum set, and moved 100 miles up the Pacific coast to horticultural paradise – Santa Barbara.

Over the next few years I would continue in retail sales, spend three years doing maintenance gardening and installation, refining my design skills, throwing out my back, and realizing that my design bag of tricks wasn’t keeping up with my imagination. So it was back to school once again, this time for a degree in landscape architecture.

I’ll pick up again a few blogs from now. In the meantime, what’s your horticultural history? Any readers with similar paths and career swings? I’d love to hear your stories. Just leave a comment and share your experiences.

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