24 Jun Gardening for the Long Game: An Interview with Jane Rozelle
Do we choose gardening, or does it choose us? It is a long running question of mine—I watch my oldest cultivating her lovely succulent garden from leaves found “guerrilla style” on sidewalks, similarly to my younger days of growing cast off strawberry runners and birdseed—and it really does seem like gardening chose us.
I sat down with my grandma, Jane Rozelle, a long-time gardener and my personal garden hero, last week to get her perspective on this question and others. She has a small garden located in Orange county in Southern California that she has transformed into a tiny paradise and food producing powerhouse. Her garden boasts 10 different fruit trees (among them a ‘Bacon’ Avocado tree—yum!, macadamia nut, apple, nectarine and fig), raised vegetable beds, constantly changing flower beds, and pockets of edibles tucked into unlikely corners that seem to do well by magic. But as any good gardener knows, amazing gardens don’t happen by chance!
JC: When did you start gardening?
JR: Well, my Dad had a victory garden during World War II and I remember helping him grow and harvest carrots and I also got to spend my summers at my grandfather’s farm in Hemet.
JC: What kind of farm was it?
JR: It was an orange ranch, but he grew a lot of other things on the property as well.
JC: Most of the land out there was Oranges back then, right?
JR: Yes, it used to be all orange groves, but now it’s all houses.
JC: That sounds like the story of that whole area now.
JC: Why did you start gardening?
JR: I don’t know, it has to be something inborn, right?
JC: Yeah, I sometimes think the same thing. I’m not sure why I picked it up either, I just did. Maybe it’s genetic? (laughs)
JR: Yes, maybe it is! As a kid, I liked to be out in nature and be outside all day. As newlyweds, Doug and I moved to San Francisco and we lived in the student barracks of USF. The whole thing was asphalt—so ugly and not beautiful at all, and behind there was a fence where ladies dried their clothes. Beyond that was a field. One day, I bought a package of sweet peas seeds and planted them on the lot side, hoping they’d grow up the fence. Why did I do that? I don’t know! I think I wanted something beautiful. That was the first time I grew something myself.
Then, when we moved back to Southern California, we rented a place in Long Beach that already had a garden—what luck! The kids grew sunflowers and I gardened—the soil was so good there! When we moved to our current house, I didn’t understand why everything died, when I had such great success at the Long Beach house growing things.
JC: And that brings me to my next question, which I think I already know the answer to: What was your biggest challenge with your location?
JR: Oh, the soil here! We bought this house brand new in the late 60’s, and before that, it was a dairy. I put in trees in the back yard, and they all died. I tried different things, but they all died. Everything I planted died. Finally, I discovered after talking to some local nursery workers that all that whitish stuff on top of my soil was alkali—basically salts—from the dairy, and that my soil was worthless. It was a big blow. I prayed to God one day that I could have a garden, even though it seemed impossible at the time.
So, I started reading. I ordered every book I could find on the subject. I built raised beds because they were in vogue at the time, but mostly because the ground was like a brick. I started composting before anyone was doing it, and I just kept adding compost to my soil. And eventually, things started to work.
JC: People probably assume you just “have a green thumb” and that all this you have now was easy!
JR: It was a lot of hard work. And a lot of trial and error—I learned so much from this garden. People come here for garden tours and I think it is hard for them to see what had to happen before it could be like this.
JC: So, now that we’ve talked about challenges, What’s the biggest benefit from your location? It seems like a lot grows here!
JR: Oh yes, the climate allows me to grow things all year. I get tomatoes until Christmas! Don’t you grow all year up where you are?
JC: Yes, but I don’t have tomatoes until Christmas! What’s the most interesting thing you’ve grown here?
JR: Well, I’ve grown Pineapple from a cut pineapple top a few times…
JC: I remember that! It was delicious!
JR: Yes, and I grow papaya in the front yard and I’ve grown bananas before too! And my dragon fruit is now starting to really do well.
JC: Wow. I love this weather down here! How has what you’ve decided to grow changed over time?
JR: I think when you’re younger, it is fun to experiment, like with the pineapple. But now that I’m older, I’ve simplified, and I grow mostly a salad garden, fruit trees and flowers. Everything else is a waste of time for me. I’m really into iris right now! When you look into those ruffled fancy iris, don’t you just see the face of God in their beauty?
JC: Yes, they are pretty spectacular!
JC: What do you think took a long time to learn?
JR: Well, I’m still learning. That’s what is so great about gardening. You can always be learning something new. Today I learned that it was a mistake not tying up my cucumbers earlier, and now I have a mess! (laughs) But I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you have to eat everything you plant!
JC: Well, that seems like a given…
JR: No, I’m serious! That’s why I’m mostly planting greens these days. You have to make sure you want to eat whatever you put in the ground at the beginning. I think we get excited about new and fun things, but really, we have to pay attention to what we will actually want to eat later.
JC: What’s the most rewarding thing about gardening?
JR: Probably how fun it is to walk out into the yard and pick a warm cherry tomato and a bean and eat them right there, don’t you think?
JC: Yes, yes I do!
Some additional thoughts
Something that isn’t communicated in this interview is the way my grandma’s garden is always changing. Her constant curiosity and need for refreshing of things keeps her garden beautiful and tidy, and it taught me that you truly can’t have “dear ones” when you have limited space. The place occupied by the newly planted “Spice Zee Nectaplum” was previously occupied by at least 3 different fruit trees that I can remember, that either started to get too big or too old (or too boring!) to keep. My favorite pomegranate tree as a kid is now a cute space for tomatoes and squash. Trim box hedges surrounding an inner area are now billowy lantana, geraniums and chip mulch. The raised beds have gone from railroad ties, to cinder block, to the current stylish rock-faced elevated beds to enable her to continue gardening as bending over becomes more difficult.
As I look over my garden, I think her approach has freed me up to be able to make hard decisions about my garden and my own limited space. I don’t have to be a slave to sentimentality or nostalgia—if it doesn’t work, I can just rip it out! (artichoke, I’m thinking of you!). And while I know I won’t be able to work my garden as long as she has (since mine is a rental) I like thinking of the long game in terms of planning and change.
Jane recently upgraded her raised beds to higher, stone faced enclosures with wide ledge top for sitting, and a hidden corner area becomes home to squash and tomatoes.
A well-utilized birdbath surrounded by yellow Lantana and sunflowers and the old birdbath upcycled to a cute succulent planter
‘Bacon’ avocado out front, delicious dwarf kumquat in the back, and the back fig tree that’s been there as long as I can remember.
Dragonfruit planted on the arbor, papaya trees back behind the chimney and a macadamia tree in the front yard make this garden unique
This angle of the back yard contains four fruit trees (Nectaplum, mandarin orange, kumquat and persimmon), dragonfuit trellis, raised beds, countless flowers, lawn for great grandchildren to run amok, and of course, Sherman the tortoise, who has lived with our family since I was tiny and has a penchant for hibiscus flowers and mallow leaves.
Garden Ideas for your Consideration
You know how your Mom was always telling you something, and now that you are an adult, one day you suddenly understood what she was saying and that she was right? I know, annoying! My time spent with my grandma last week had a similar ‘aha’ moment.
For years, my grandma has been telling me to “get a mailbox like mine to put your equipment in.” I thought it was kind of silly, putting a mailbox in your garden, and just smiled and nodded when it came up. But you know what? I’ve been out in my garden—especially after the long, rainy winter—and wishing for a covered place where I could quickly stash pruners, spade and a pair of gloves. I am constantly misplacing those things all over the garden! So now I’m thinking I DO need a mailbox or similar kind of place. Thanks grandma….and you’re of course right!