Sonji McDowell, who calls herself the “Garden Nanny,” is in her third year working in my garden. She’s is my right-hand woman when it comes to getting everything ready for the July 7 open day for The Garden Conservancy. Unfortunately, she’s moving on, leaving for a new life in Florida right after that day.
As much as I will miss her–we get excited about the same plants, the same garden observations–I have confidence that someone else will come along. In 20 years of developing this garden, Sonji is the latest in a long line of garden helpers, each of whom have left a change on the place.
The first,and foremost in terms of overall contributions through the years is Sergio Millan, a rock wall genius, among other talents. With his assistant that summer of 1993, Gilberto Corrinton, he transformed 90 tons of basalt rock (cheap back then–we couldn’t afford to build this now) into two dry-laid stone walls. The long walls allow us to have a relatively flat space between them near our house. The inner stones by the deck form a raised bed that helps ease the slope from the house down to the ground. The outer wall is a retaining structure, with an enormous number of rocks buried there to stabilize the hillside.
And then there was Charles, the law student/rock hauler. We privately dubbed him “Charles the Ox.” because of his indefatigable ability to move rock—he had legs like redwood trees. He must have touched every rock in those 90 tons—including the leftovers—and he scattered them around the property in piles for future building projects. (We have since used most of them.) He was in an agony that summer because he couldn’t tell his dad that he had left law school. Hauling rock was his solace.
That was the start of the garden. One of my first helpers was a high school student, Mark Allee. With many rings in his ears and a large one in his nose—this was 20 years ago, when such jewelry adornment was more unusual—he did not fit the gardener stereotype. But he was great. He was totally in line with my all-organic approach—even if it was more work weeding and hauling mulch. He was always cheerful, and he had a good eye for design.
At once point Mark suggested—”You know, that big Miscanthus—the variegated one? (Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’)Why don’t you put one on either side of the steps?” We did, and they are there yet, reminding me of Mark every time I pass them.
Sundance Fairchild Manning (Yes—this is Eugene—lots of kids have names like that, OK?) helped me for two years when she was in high school. She worked hardest to develop the upper rose garden bed. That’s hers, and I sit on the bench and think of her, now grown, living in Arizona.
Her father, Dave Manning along with Jody Proctor–an unsung great writer who died too young–built the original boxes on the deck. The boxes replaced the original railing and went from above the deck level to the ground, hiding the deck supports. They were featured in on of my first articles for Fine Gardening.
To prepare for the last time the garden was open, I hired friends of friends of garden helpers to get ready—eight people altogether. But it was the student from China—I forget her name—a small powerhouse of a woman, who inadvertently became my crew boss.
Everyone was working on different jobs. She laid the edging bricks down one side of the lawn while two fellows worked the matching bed on the other side. Faster and faster—she finished while they were only halfway done. Her edge was neater, too. She managed to smother a grin as she trotted on to another task.
I’d never had anyone work with that much drive in my garden—I certainly never did, and I don’t usually demand speed. I asked her about it. She told me her parents, who had been college professors during China’s upheavals, had been relocated to the countryside before she was born. She learned her work habits from her father, she said.
She galvanized the fellows on the crew into laboring much harder and faster than they might have. Without ever saying anything, they were being shown up by a petite and pretty woman who looked like she could hardly lift a garden spade. # # # #