Marilyn Gardner Woods
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
Since finishing The Overstory, Richard Powers Pulitzer Prize winning book, I have been obsessed with growing a chestnut tree from seed. I welcome any guidance…
Even though I live in sunny southern California, I still want to grow one. I did read they are slow growers; I am not patient, but I am committed.
I first became aware of the mighty chestnut as a rarin’-to-go student at Longfellow Elementary School in Dallas. As sixth graders, we proudly chanted the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most quoted line in perhaps all of American history, “Under the spreading chestnut three, the village smithy stands.”
Somehow, I thought the man not only wrote the poem but named our school.
Toward the end of our performance, we gathered steam as we rolled through the verses. Our homeroom teacher beamed stage-mothering us from behind the curtain to the left. In unison, loud and proud, we blasted the final verse and bid farewell as we marched off to junior high school.
Despite living uber-urban smack dab in the center of San Diego, occasionally I long to be a farmer again. Twenty years of pruning, harvesting and nurturing a vineyard and an orange grove planted serious strains of botanical ardor in my soul. My backyard raised beds satisfy a bit of my yearning, but it’s just not the same as turning the soil, digging down deep and feeling the cool terra firma of our farmland welcome my bare hands. The cool musky fragrance of upturned earth. Seductive.
One perfect weather-wise afternoon not so long ago, I read the last lines of my book club’s daunting selection, The Overstory, several times in an effort to stave off the inevitable end and loss of companionship that a moving book provides.
“This is what we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.”
An affinity for growing things in nature on my property heightened, thanks to my time with this book. I sat with it. After some time of reflection, I put it down and strolled half way down the back canyon to look at the rich green spruce, a Norfolk Island Pine I moved in its pot from my home in the country four years ago. It has quadrupled in size as it stands now beneath its willowy neighbor, a four-story eucalyptus. I leaned close, its fresh woodsy scent reminded me of so many Christmas mornings past. I don’t remember how the lone pine got to its spot in the ground; I suspect my son did the transplanting from its pot to the canyon site beyond the olive trees in an effort to assuage my overpowering grief while I existed zombie-like in both sadness and upheaval, a new widow.
Since that time, just after Thanksgiving each year my ritual is to cover the evergreen with white twinkle lights for the holidays. This year I will need a ladder, I mused as I made my way back up the path to my quiet space. I plopped down in a chair, panting a bit from the uphill climb, and recalled our last Christmas together. We were going to the kids for the holidays. “Let’s just buy a small tree in a pot from the nursery,” Jack said. Heart tugs.
Back on my terrace, glass of lemonade in hand, I re-read passages from my book. A book made from trees. I put my glass down on the teak table and with a new commitment to trees and plants in my life, I began.
First, I rescued a broken limb of one of the Euphorbia Ingens, which I first fell in love with at the dramatic and whimsical spectacular garden, Lotus Land in Montecito, very near Oprah’s elegant estate. She did not invite us in.
I had walked by the injured soul in our canyon several times. These sculptural, multi-armed creatures are better known as the cowboy cactus; at least that’s what we called them in Texas. A brigade of more than a dozen, some well over twenty feet tall and watermelon rind green in color, stand throughout our canyon, like those protecting the Alamo.
This particular one’s errant cactus-like segmented lower arm had buckled under the branches of a nearby citrus and I suspected that it would be happier in a ceramic pot in my dining room near the French doors. Carefully I severed the limb and for six weeks now I have helicopter-parented it for signs of contentment. Nothing. No new bud or flower, but no signs of riding off into the sunset either. Fingers crossed.
Last spring, I planted a multitude of Provence French lavender plants; my labyrinth in the country was lined with the fragrant blossoms. The long mauve-purple spikes of flowers on silver green stems are beautiful when swaying in the breeze. Bees gather regularly; their buzzing, a familiar white noise, is comforting. I do find making lavender wands stressful, but when done, so delightful. https://everything-lavender.com/lavender-wands-provence.html
I set up a succulent propagating station on my husband’s workshop bench; I knew I saved it for something. Such a thrill to see how quickly anemones, aloes and echeveria sprout new roots and come to life from one small cutting. Free!
Most mornings, I survey the emerging assembly, spritz a bit of water and remove dead leaves. Regularly, I take one in a special pot to a friend. People love receiving growing things.
As a plane flew overhead drawing me back to my garden spot, I turned to the now vacant corner near the fence where my fiddle leaf fig languished for over a year. It dropped leaves regularly as its skinny trio of trunks struggled skyward in the search for sunshine. Tall, scraggly thing.
There was no Christmas tree in my home the first year without my husband. Something came over me several days before the 25th of December, my second year alone. Driving to the plant store, I sobbed; dried my tears in the parking lot; came out with the fig tree, which I dressed up like a Christmas tree, lights and all.
In the new year, I moved the plant to the garden, where it remained potted, often neglected.
Thanks to a few strong guys, it now lives in the rich soil under my kitchen window. I almost dropped a wine glass the other day as I washed dishes at my sink and noticed a new leaf had appeared. It’s like I had something to do with it…
My most current experience as a wanna-be botanist involved a giant plant-bound Meyer lemon tree which I inherited when I moved in, alone. The tree is taller than me and is as wide as it is tall; its verdigris pot is the size of a Kia car. In my mind, the lemon tree was a fixture to work around, impossible to move.
This year’s lemons, however, were pithy and less than juicy. No sign of new leaves or growth. An unintended citrus bonsai.
After the successful transplant of the fiddle leaf, I had a bit of confidence, engaged the gardeners again. I couldn’t watch as they operated with surgical skill, removing the giant root ball without breaking the mega ceramic pot. It took three of them, grabbing the center stem like a maypole to hoist the tree, lemons and all from its longtime home.
As I folded my laundry not long ago, I opened the window to a soft breeze coming from outside where magenta bougainvillea blossoms floated on top of the stucco wall around the lemon tree in its new home, close to the fig. Deep breath.
“Hello Ms. Lemon. Meet Mr. Fiddle Leaf. Did you all have a good night?”
I’m re-reading The Overstory, which proposes that there is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. Working with nature reinforces that for me. A good feeling.
What would be an even "gooder" feeling would be help with my chestnut tree project. Any ideas?
Wonderful! Just lovely, and I especially loved the accompanying photographs. (If I read the book, will I suddenly find myself putting things in pots on our wee balcony, in competition with Bob?) I forwarded this to Bob, but can you add him to your list? He loves your writing!
You transport me to another place. It often feels as if it is your heart.
Beautiful! And how it made me miss my husband even more. His greatest joy was "piddling" in his greenhouse returning a little, sick, forgotten plant he bought from the sale table at Home Depot to health and beauty. Me, I wanted the instant gratification of a pot of flowers in glorious bloom! Him, patience...when we married he had a 35 year old, huge fiddle leaf fig tree that he had grown from a terrarium. It has never been happy in my new home, but it still has about ten leaves and lots of good memories.
Hope to see you in San Antonio next year.
Your story tugs at a lot of my heart strings. There is nothing I love more than growing things. I am just finishing a book you may find interesting call Trees in Paradise by Jared Farmer. It's the story of our four great tree groups in California. The Redwood/Sequoia, the Eucalyptus, Citrus and palm trees. It is a great read. I am looking forward to reading Overstory too!
Through all the busyness of everyday life, thank you for the retreat and quiet stroll to appreciate the beauty of nature. It does feed and sooth the spirit. And also reminds us of the Presence who provides it all for us to enjoy.
Thank you, and we so enjoy your writings.
Howdy, Neighbor, I cannot describe ,with any words comparable to yours, how much I loved reading your essay, Marilyn❤️ It, literally, bought tears to my eyes! I wish I were there with you enjoying your lovely home and countryside! If I were you, I would never leave your piece of “Heaven on earth”! Keep on writing👍👍 Your “Texas” Neighbor! Lou😘😘
I cannot believe this. I went to junior high school at Longfellow junior high in San Antonio Texas. I had to memorize the entire score by the shores of gichie gooma. What a small world. Needless to say your last blog was as good as all the rest. I feel like this was a special one for me. When I think of plants now I will think of you. Sorry I know nothing about chestnut trees. At our golf course in Kansas City by the green on the second hole was a big chestnut tree. We all collected dozens of chest nuts every year because we were told they were good luck. So if you get a tree, save some nuts for me. Jan
How easily I can see you moving around your garden, plotting new ways to make your trees soar. I only wish I had met you when we were kids, I bet we would have become friends earlier. Like you, I love plants, always have, and am constantly tinkering with them. And now to get me The Overstory, can't wait...Renato
Hi Marilyn, My favorite uncle in Nova Scotia had a chestnut tree and every year he would drill a hole in some, string them and make a necklace for me. A treasured memory. Thank you for triggering trips down 'Memory Lane' Jackie
Well...I love your latest story about growing a chestnut tree...its values, symbolism etc...and I am reading the book you referred to "Overstory" it is great....so I understand your infatuation with the tree..!! You know of course that you can buy a tree on line or propagate one yourself if you can find fresh chestnuts...You know also by now that you must plant 2 trees. I grew up where there was one chestnut tree in the neighborhood...We kids could not wait for the tree to drop shells and then we sat underneath it and carved the beautiful shiny nuts with a PARING Knife and strung them into necklaces..Did you ever do that??? Good luck with your stories ...they are terrific!! Audrey