Oasis in a Hot, Dusty Town

I grew up lucky, in a luxurious setting with my four siblings in one of the least desirable towns in California. In the 1960s and ’70s Bakersfield routinely had not only the second highest violent crime rate in California (Los Angeles was first), but godawful air, making the mountains that ringed it nearly always invisible.

Summers were ridiculously hot, beginning in mid-May and ending in late September. It was either dry, dusty and windy or in the winter socked in with low-lying tule fog that seeped up from the damp fields (presumably laced with pesticides). And on not that rare an occasion one of the oil refineries would let off a toxic cloud and we’d all jump in the car to the other side of town with wet washcloths over our mouths and noses.

My parents were both born there, my dad in town, my mom 25 minutes out of town as her father was a farmer—an agribusiness farmer with a lot of land. My dad’s dad was an architect whose buildings graced the high school I attended and were some of the few not knocked down in the big earthquake of 1952.

I’m pretty sure my dad would have preferred to live at the more scenic, cooler coast, but he, also an architect, was reluctant to leave that name recognition and a chance to be a big fish in a small pond. My mom was firmly rooted in the earth and had zero interest in leaving. My dad also loved to make my mom happy.

My dad’s solution to this climate conundrum was to create a plant-based oasis on an acre of land they bought when they were newly married. Mom was all in on this plan. He would proudly note as we drove alongside the dirt field studded with tumbleweeds, and off the baking pavement into our shaded front drive that it was a good 20 degrees cooler there than in the outside world. “Shady Acres,” he’d call it. All it took was a ton of work and even more water.

Let me take you on a quick tour.

First that circular drive. Don’t picture “The Crown,” but a more basic small asphalt version packed in the center with redwood trees, ferns, azaleas and agapanthus, as if Dad were trying to duplicate far northern coastal California in the Central Valley.

Seemed as if every time my oldest sister stepped up to bat she homered into that reservoir.

Off the two converging small brick walks to the front door were a variety of shade-loving plants, camellias, clivias and mondo grass canopied by a Japanese maple and trees from “the circle.” The front door of our six-bedroom Dad-designed mid-century modern opened onto a hallway, with a McDonald clan wool tartan generally used to make kilts glued meticulously to the wall like wallpaper.

Dad had always proudly told us five kids we were part of the McDonald clan, but I asked once at the Scottish Games clan booth and when the guy looked up Biggar in the giant bible-paged book, he shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, you might have been owned by McDonald’s? The Biggars were all lowlanders.” Meaning the McDonalds were the landowners and we the serfs.

In retrospect we realize our Dad had a lively imagination.

The living room looked out onto our half-acre backyard, which hosted 174 trees (my sister and I, dying of boredom, counted them once on Thanksgiving break). Eucalyptus, sycamore, two giant figs, pomegranate, plum, and two substantial stands of bamboo. Also, two kidney-shaped flower beds, in one of which Mom would plant 650 tulip bulbs in the late fall for an all-women’s garden party she’d host in March. The other held perennials.

During the summer we ate outside every night on a picnic table like those in national parks, and after dinner we’d rotate between softball (home runs were hits over the back fence into the freeway runoff reservoir behind us), or badminton on a meticulously limed court. Seemed as if every time my oldest sister stepped up to bat she homered into that reservoir.

Dad may have been prone to flights of fancy, but Mom was all business, cooking meals from scratch, baking our bread, filling two built-in cookie drawers on the regular, and while we were young sewing all our clothes. She was like Martha Stewart, but an A-line trigger-skirt variety, not glamorous, more buttoned up in her bearing.

In what we called the “way back,” Mom and Dad lorded over a lush garden of raspberries, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplants (Mom once watched an entire eggplant yanked into the ground by a gopher), on occasion corn, basil, and, Dad’s favorite, a plethora of hot peppers he dried on a sheet in the sun on my brother’s bed. We had all left home by the time the pepper obsession really kicked in. But when I’d visit he’d demonstrate how he ground up the dried peppers, put them in old spice jars and sprinkled liberally over his food.

When we were kids, Saturdays were for gardening, and while the kids were still living at home we took care of all of this ourselves. I, being the youngest by five years, got off easy, but it was a good four hours every Saturday without fail of weeding, raking, mowing, etc. My poor brother Eric; mowing with tears streaming down his face from hay fever, my parents none too empathetic. If company were coming, Dad liked to literally squirt off the entire lawn with a high-pressure hose post-raking, so it was pristine.

I’m lucky now to live on what seems like a very spacious quarter acre in Oakland, where we raised our two now grown kids in a small mid-century modern with the original camellias and clivias around the very familiar patio, but more drought-resistant varieties elsewhere.

Our kitchen window looks out on a “wild” front yard (meaning my husband and I never landscaped it), with Monterey pines and native oaks, home to a rotating variety of crows, blue jays, finches, robins, hummingbirds, even ravens, hawks, owls and turkey vultures, plus scads of squirrels that use the pine boughs as a freeway onramp to the roof, racing across to a mature oak on the other side. Miraculously I now love gardening, but don’t have nearly the discipline nor the time to spend on it that my parents did. We often head out hiking instead.

Still, I miss the non-gardening time in that original yard, the one with a hammock hung between two giant sycamores, where I would read for hours, the days seemingly endless.

Alison Biggar is ASA’s editorial director.

Photo caption: Bulbs in the flower bed, with fig tree near the fence to the neighbor's.