A Pop-Up Heritage Garden (Town Crier, March 2012)
In mid-January on my street corner a carpet of green shoots transforms each year into hundreds of waving narcissus blooms – the maximum bloom cresting during the coldest days of winter.
Someone at least 30 years ago planted some narcissus bulbs in the orchard which formerly marked the end of the street. It may have been the original owner of the orchard. It may have been the first owner of the house built in the housing development which replaced the orchard, or the second green-thumbed owner who planted over a dozen different varieties of fruit trees in the place of the original apricots. It may even have been my father, who was a city kid who did his best to become a green-thumb gardener for over forty years after buying the house and land in the late 50’s.
Somehow the bulbs survived my father’s regular roto-tilling of the orchard, the bull-dozing of the fruit trees when our house was built next to my parents’ in the 80’s, the re-landscaping, covering with new soil, and planting of a rose garden after the new house was built.
One summer day as I was picking roses, I saw a bulb lying on the ground. Wondering where it had come from, I picked it up. Underneath it was another bulb. I picked that one up too. The hollow where it had been was lined with more bulbs. It was like the classic Dr. Seuss book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins; each bulb I picked from the hollow revealed more bulbs beneath and around the first one. I had discovered a bulb mine!
Apparently the bulbs had been dividing and multiplying under the topsoil until they had run out of soil; then the bottom layers began pushing the others upward until the top-most one was simply lying on the surface. I fetched an old pair of panty hose and began loading bulbs into it. When I had taken all the bulbs that seemed loose in the bulb mine, I threw a couple of shovels-full of dirt into the hollow to encourage the bulbs that were left, and hung the bulb-filled stockings on a nail in the garage.
When the rains came to soften the dirt, I planted the bulbs in the bare space around the oak tree on the corner. I didn’t know I was supposed to imitate nature and scatter them randomly, so I set them out in orderly rows, counting as I planted. By the time the stockings were emptied, I had planted 250 bulbs.
The next year I spotted a bulb lying on the ground in a different place. The new bulb mine yielded about 150 bulbs, some of which I shared with my sister in Davis and my co-workers in San Jose or planted in pots as Christmas gifts. The leftovers went to another bare space beyond the oak tree, and along the parking space in front of the rose garden.
Over the next years as the bulb mines appeared and disappeared, I began offering bags of bulbs to my neighbors up and down the street. My Adopt-A-Bulb campaign has become almost an August tradition.
Last year I only harvested about 50 bulbs from the newest satellite mine, and I and my neighbors are running out of bare spaces in our gardens. But in January, when the narcissus are all blooming together, I think about the long-ago gardener who planted the first bulbs, hoping to make the world a little bit more lovely. Though it only lasts two weeks, it is a wonderful heritage.