Portrait of a Gardener: A Garden Not by Design


San Leandro is a suburban city in northern California, where land is parceled out stingily. Most residents don't bother trying to eek out more than a patch of scratchy lawn or a spartan rosebush, and it's a shame they don't, because a century ago, this humble city was one of the most successful cherry plum-growing areas in the state. Longtime resident Norman Chen is one gardener who has truly reaped the rewards of the land. He tells me of the time when his daughters were eating watermelon on the back stoop, spitting the seeds onto the paved ground, “Two weeks later, we had a watermelon plant growing out of the cement!” Another story has Norman chopping down a white peach tree that had grown its way through an old, rusted-through car. He moved the car and, in no time, the tree had grown back and given another crop of fragrant peaches. It's not just a tree here and there, either: figs, persimmons, pears, guavas, and apricots are so closely spaced you have to fight your way through the branches. Pumpkins, chard, berries, tomatoes, creep along the soil, and underneath: potatoes! There is even a trellis for concord grapes that Norman built himself.

The real miracle is that this garden, which has produced enough to raise eight children and a multitude of grandchildren, uses no chemical enhancement at all. And while Norman says, feigning practicality, “You don't grow what is cheap; you grow what is expensive!” I know that he grows whatever shows up (by magic, children, or other means). I sometimes think he waters this strange and beautiful garden, with overgrown clubhouses and still-buried treasure, because he likes surprises. A month had passed since the last time I'd visited, and when I asked where the two new walnut trees in the front yard had come from (each one nearly as tall as the house itself), he blamed those darn forgetful squirrels. Photo credits: Lauren Graham



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