ONE LOOK at my mother's hands, and you would have known she was a gardener. Living as we did in New Hampshire, the only way she had to indulge her love of growing things from September into May lay in tending our houseplants and starting avocado seeds on toothpick stands in our kitchen window. In March, with the ground still white and the air frigid, my mother scraped back the snow on our flower beds in search of the first brave crocus and hyacinth spears to push through the frozen soil. But come Memorial Day, we'd make our long-anticipated annual pilgrimage to the nursery and fill the backseat of our Buick with that year's crop of annuals--flats of smiling pansies, three colors of marigolds, ageratum, petunias, and my mother's favorite, zinnias.
I loved the day we put the flowers in the earth--she with her trowel, I with mine. "Never stick a plant into dry soil," she'd remind me, filling each hole with a little puddle of water so the roots, too long confined, could spread out at last.
Many years later, when I was grown, with children and a home of my own, the image of my mother planting, cultivating, watering, and weeding stayed with me (after her death even) every time I'd start each year's garden. Maybe it was growing up with a gardener that taught me this lesson: Just because an experience won't last forever doesn't mean it's any less valuable.
Still, I was greedy. If three months of garden glory were good, what would it be like to have my hands in the dirt all year? And so (not for the gardening alone but because of all the ways that life in a warmer climate might enrich my days), I moved with my children 11 years ago to Northern California. I hadn't even unpacked all the boxes when I made my first trip to Sloat Garden Center. And though I had purchased the Sunset Western Garden Book, knowing that wise California gardeners consulted it as their bible, I let my heart lead me in my plant selections. I still loved pansies and marigolds, but I didn't move 3,000 miles to recreate the gardens of my younger years.
I filled the back of my car with roses and a miniature orange tree, bird of paradise and passion flower. On my exploratory missions to the Bay Area, I had marveled at the gardens exploding with roses on Mill Valley's sunnier streets. Never mind that my house was on Mt. Tamalpais, its yard shaded by redwoods. I didn't know about microclimates then, any more than I understood why you don't make plans to travel north on U.S. 101 between 4 and 6 on a Friday afternoon. To a New Englander, it was all California. The land where growing anything should be possible.
The plant I most dreamed to grow that first summer was a gardenia, its blossoms known to me only from hothouse corsages. …