By Teddy Robertson
I got home late, a bit after 9 pm, coming back in June to my house in Flint after a several months’ sojourn in the south babeach cities west of Los Angeles. My partner Dennis—an LA native—won’t arrive until July.
I’ll be on my own in Michigan for a while.
Dennis lives in Torrance, just over the hill from the Pacific coast. It’s usually warmer than at the beach, but when I hike up the steep hillside behind his house I can see the ocean in the distance. This part of SoCal (as the media call it) is about as perfect a late winter getaway as a Michigander could have.
The climate is “temperate,” also termed Mediterranean. What could be more perfect? Locals lament the lack of rain (or the threat of mudslides if rain comes), the sirocco-type winds called Santa Anas, and the long allergy season that starts in February. Potential earthquake drama lurks in the background, although people don’t fret about it much. I heard on public radio that someone’s developing a mobile app to sense tremors—users will know what area’s shaking the hardest. Just check your cell phone as roof and walls collapse.
So the region has a climate—but not weather. At least by Midwest standards. The term “outerwear” is unknown and no one has a coat closet at the front door. Gutters and eaves troughs hang unattended; no one seems to clean them. Screen doors are optional. The weather crawl rarely runs across the bottom of the TV screen.
The Torrance population boomed in the 1950s as the postwar aerospace and petroleum industries grew. New homeowners planted fruitless olive and pepper trees for shade. The small yards of two-bedroom houses accommodated citrus trees—lime, lemon, orange, or plum, avocado, and pomegranate. Water was no problem as the city utility grid expanded along with the population.
Today few residents tend the trees laden with abundant fruit in winter despite the last five years of drought. Plums, lemons, and limes fall into the street to be mashed by traffic or roll under the cars parked on the pavement after everyone returns from work. Garages were long ago filled with stuff or turned into extra rooms.
Along walkways to old apartment buildings tree roses still thrive. In a neglected corner against a faded stucco house, I’ll see a blooming pink camellia bush, thick with glossy green leaves above patchy, jaundiced grass. Brilliant cerise bougainvillea drape their vines of papery flowers over collapsing fences. Mexicans bent beneath shoulder pack leaf blowers propel the dry olive and pepper leaves from one yard to another with the fervor of Zapata’s army. Brittle and desiccated, the leaves never rot.
Landscaping in drought-era SoCal is all about native plants. Nurseries and websites educate gardeners; some water departments give credits for purchasing rain barrels. At area conservation sites guides explain native flora to hikers and birders. I’m trying to learn the varieties of sagebrush, toyon, blue elderberry, and lemonade bush. But I have to say none of them seems very distinctive to me. Small spots of color come from lupines, sunflowers, poppies and primrose, and manzanita with its red bark. Subtle shades—or wan, depending upon your view—in contrast to the florid tropical imports.
In southern California, land of sand and clay, the dirt is a creamy tan color. Where bulldozers have gouged away hillsides, no striations of color or texture emerge in the carved earth. Its dry, light consistency sheds a powdery dust everywhere that natives seem not to notice.
Gardeners plant in pots, but the squirrels rummage in the container mix, scatter the ersatz soil. It’s a hard go. Two years ago Dennis’s landlady capped her sprinkling system pipes, poured pea gravel into the box hedge borders and then sprayed the gravel with a plastic coating. The shiny pebbles never move. Finally, last year she abandoned the lawn struggle and laid down a carpet of AstroTurf in her front yard.
In the alley behind Dennis’s house there’s a prickly pear cactus: opuntia ovata, one of the few naturally thriving plants and now some six feet high. A tight right turn with the car and you can break off some of its flat spikey pads, the cladodes, or in Spanish, nopales. I backed into the cactus myself once. Only an elderly Mexican lady respects the cactus dignity; she trundles down the alley to pick its fruit when its yellow, orange, and pink blooms fade in late spring.
Stretching my legs after a five-hour flight, I walk up to my Michigan house and sense that it must have been a perfect day here, perhaps in the mid-70s. I’ve returned to a perfect Midwest evening—still and mild. No jacket needed; the air warms my skin like velvet. I breathe in the continental air, not yet humid, but heavy compared to the bracing Pacific coast. It’s three days until the summer solstice.
Above my front porch the photocell outdoor lights flicker and hiccup, hesitant to commit to their nighttime task. It won’t be really dark for another hour.
In the eerie half-light I can see the shrubs flourishing—an incandescent green sumac, spirea beginning to flower, phlox erect at attention but the blossoms not yet open. Against the garage siding the peonies lay prostrate on the grass, collapsed beneath the weight of their blooms.
Friends messaged me that May had been cool in Michigan, some rain but no sudden heat waves. Great weather for gardens. In the new front yard flower bed clumps of feathery wild barley grass (hordeum murinum) rise over a foot tall. Their mandorla tufts glow in the light of the not quite a half moon. Silent invaders in my absence. Days of weed-pulling are ahead.
Lugging my roll aboard up the front steps onto the porch, I pass the window box with its wilted leaves—remnants from Home Depot’s paltry assortment of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth. I resolve once again to order really big bulbs from Holland for next fall. Read up on late blooming tulips at the Michigan State Extension website.
The twist of my key in the door lock and clatter of the suitcase wheels across the loose metal doorsill that should be repaired—all sounds I’ve not heard for months now.
As I prop my suitcase up in the hallway, through the kitchen windows I can see the back yard. The orange poppies have come and gone, and now seed-filled rattle heads dangle from the crook of their tall stems. The lilac is finished too, its conical clusters of blossoms deceptively intact, but dead. Another loss.
But at the edges of the security light beaming from my neighbor’s garage I can see the roses, twelve of them lined against the retaining wall. Three bushes are a decade old. Last year I battled black spot and mildew, sprayed their leaves with dish soap and baking soda. Wept when one of them developed twisted leaves and thorny stems, symptoms of the bizarre rosette virus. It was a summer of struggle.
Now midway through their first June blooming time, the roses have flourished in my absence.
My SoCal winter getaway spared me several months of cold and ice, of dreary days of Great Lakes overcast. But I have missed early June and the moist black earth of the Midwest where the worms are as thick as my little finger.
I’m on Pacific coast time of course—my body says it’s only six o’clock. The gardening gloves are still on the kitchen table where I left them in March. I pick them up and turn back to head out the front door.
I can already feel the give of the soft earth against my tug when I will grab a first handful of that barley grass.
EVM columnist Teddy Robertson can be reached at email@example.com.