January 9th, 2012

Wade Graham is a Los Angeles, California -based garden designer, historian, and writer whose work on the environment, landscape, urbanism and the arts has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and other publications. This year, he authored two distinct works about gardens – American Eden, a beautiful volume that takes a sweeping look at the history of America’s gardens and the visionaries behind them; and Jesus Is My Gardener, a little gem released as a Kindle Single that offers a consciousness-raising view of the laborers who tend today’s gardens. Here, introduced by some of his recent musings, is an excerpt from Wade Graham’s Jesus Is My Gardener.

Jesus is My Gardener

By Wade Graham


I have often wondered what it is that I’m doing—what we are doing—when we make gardens. I wrote a book, American Eden, to explore that question and its flipside, what our gardens say about us. By us, I tended to mean the designers and owners of gardens. The book says too little about the third party at the garden party—the people who work in our gardens, who frequently build them and more often than not maintain them. It is remarkable how little we think about these others, our partners in the garden transaction. Because the business of gardens is a transaction, with economic, political, psychological, and ethical dimensions.

Who are these people? Where do they come from? They have always been there: Jefferson’s slave labor force at Monticello, the Irish and Italian laborers in the gardens of the Vanderbilts and Goulds, the Japanese who built the great California estates, and now, the Mexicans with their powertool-burdened pickup trucks. How do they experience their side of the garden transaction?

To get at the mechanics of this murky transaction we’re all parties to, I wanted to write about it from the third party’s point of view, as well as I could grasp it. I’ve spent time with the gardeners, as they call themselves, in my own garden and in those of my clients. We are all good people, well-intentioned; all of us have our own unresolved contradictions, even if not always as gaping as those who leave two Priuses in the (well-manicured) driveway while taking a private jet to Aspen for the weekend. And I’ve spent time with the gardeners, in their homes, at their celebrations: riding horses in a dry river bed, and barbequing chicken and chivos in a huge, dome-shaped wood-fired oven made from cinder blocks, chicken wire, and horse manure-reinforced adobe. We should all be invited to one another’s tables.

I don’t claim to have found the solution, or a template for perfect communication, much less trouble-free garden maintenance. But in telling some of the stories, I see a real possibility for a better transaction, for all parties, in the garden and out of it, and the possibility of knowing, at least some of the time, what it is that we are doing when we make and keep gardens.

Excerpt from Jesus is My Gardener

People pay me to design paradise for them, however small: a private Eden with trees, flowers, maybe a small fountain with just enough water noise to “wash” off the city as the owner returns home, and some vista, no matter how small the allotted space, to beckon one inside. A garden need be little more than this to salve the soul. Here in Los Angeles, even just a few doors away from the lurid billboards and crawling traffic of the Sunset Strip, where some of my most successful clients live, one can step through a garden gate as if through a kind of navel into another world of miraculous tranquility, where one can almost imagine that the roar of the city is drowned out by birdsong and the breeze moving through the leaves.

But this calm is maintained by a storm, once a week: men dressed in green chinos and battered boots pile out of a dinged pickup, fire up machines, and fan out like soldiers, trimming hedges, mowing grass, sending clouds of smoke and green confetti flying. Mostly silent amid the racket, occasionally barking something in clipped Spanish, they move determinedly, sure in their well-practiced choreography, yet also swiftly, as though they know their time will soon be cut short. This is the agony in the garden. When the cutting is done, one man will strap onto his shoulders a leafblower, la sopladora, its one- cylinder motor whining like an angry, fifty-pound mosquito, gas sloshing in a dirty plastic tank on his back, and, by expertly swinging the plastic air tube in circular motions, will herd a rising column of clippings, leaves, trash, dust, and acrid blue exhaust ahead of him in a stutter-step waltz, as if he were backing an unruly animal into a corral.

In the eye of this cyclone stands Jesus, my gardener. Jesus comes from a small city in Zacatecas, where the state motto is “Labor vincit omnia,” work conquers all. He and his men, who he calls muchachos, many of them cousins or nephews, are—or once were—horsemen, having grown up on family ranchos. They still wear cowboy hats and put stickers of bucking broncos and horseshoes on their American pickup trucks, the metal steeds of an immigrant cavalry now earning its frijoles by keeping the yards of Los Angeles orderly, green, and clean.

Just as “everyone” now has a gardener, everyone has a nanny, a housecleaner, and a handyman—and almost all of them speak Spanish; most are Mexican. Each morning, they infiltrate entire districts of the city, and each evening they withdraw to their own—a rhythm as regular as the tide. As with the bees and birds that pollinate flowers, there can be no gardens without gardeners. After many years of experience, I know this with scientific certainty. Once upon a time, the districts where the garden owners and the gardeners lived were thought to be well removed from one another. They were never as distinct as some believed, and now they bleed into one another, mix and meld, as the demographic fabric of the region continues to change. Of California’s 36,961,664 people, as of 2010, 37 percent are Latino. Of Los Angeles County’s nearly 10 million (9,848,011), 48 percent are Latino.

“They still wear cowboy hats and put stickers of bucking broncos and horseshoes on their American pickup trucks, the metal steeds of an immigrant cavalry now earning its frijoles by keeping the yards of Los Angeles orderly, green, and clean.”

Somebody has to do the dirty work. If we don’t do it ourselves, then we have to be careful not to treat those who do as mere machines, leafblowers, because, along with the dead leaves, la sopladora blows away life, all in the service of a perfect, unchanging, Arcadian image. That image—the American landscape as we know it—was, as it happens, invented in a cemetery, Mt. Auburn in Massachusetts, in 1831, where horticultural entrepreneurs mated the aristocratic British estate garden of endless, laboriously tended lawns with the labor-saving lawnmower, invented that same year by Edward Budding in England, to be pushed more often than not by an Irish immigrant laborer—Pat O’Shovelem. The peaceful, green repose of Mt. Auburn may have seemed like the afterlife, the ultimate balsam, but it sent us toward the loss of connection to vitality—ours and the land’s.

I must confess that I’ve made bad gardens: though lush, expansive, and expensive, thoughtlessly destructive, requiring too much water, gasoline, chemicals, and labor, all for the illusion of fecundity, but giving nothing back. I resolved, not for the first time, to make better, more-conscious gardens, to relearn and rethink the vocabulary and purpose of the garden. Is it a series of symbols, of lawn and flowers, signifying productivity? Or is it a place of real productivity? A place where dead leaves aren’t a cause for mechanized war but might be tolerated, or even, like the Zen gardens of Japan, exalted, as are gingko leaves falling on gravel? Is there a way to reconcile our American ethics with our aesthetics, our convictions with our desires? I’m not sure, but I’ll make the effort to return some small amount of natural process, and agriculture when it fits, to our backyards and front yards, without them ceasing to be gardens and turning into vacant lots or, worse, in some people’s estimation, into farms. I start with a big advantage: We can grow the same things in this climate as in the garden of Gethsemane: olives, figs, and grapes, plus some new additions, in the same spirit—kumquats, limequats, loquats, guavas, persimmons, pomellos, Buddha’s hand citrons, kiwis, pineapples, artichokes, and always the indispensable, ever fruiting Mexican cocktail limes. In Spanish, the verb “to enjoy” is disfrutar, literally to pick the fruit, and eat it. And why not? ¿Porque no?