Valley Voices

Fresno’s hardpan inspires growth

Davor Golik picks his Anaheim chiles.
Davor Golik picks his Anaheim chiles. Special to The Bee

I’m fascinated by gardeners and other optimistic souls who can see the potential in seeds and dirt. I can’t.

As newlyweds, we bought a house on a sad, dusty lot with tumbleweeds blowing across it. I wondered if something, anything, could ever grow there. But in the weeds, trash and rocks where our yard was supposed to be, inspiration bloomed for my husband.

Walking the length of the yard in every direction, he measured it old-world style, one foot at a time. He sketched and plotted on graph paper. In the heat, he snapped chalk lines and installed sprinklers, cut lumber for redwood boxes, hammered them together and filled them by hand.

Wearing a frayed straw hat, he rototilled bags and bags of manure and mulch. Thirteen years later, the magical nexus of soil, patience, plants, time, water and my gentleman farmer’s hard work has grown something beautiful on our little piece of Fresno hardpan.

My husband fusses constantly over his roses. Relentless pruning in January leaves just bare, thorny sticks poking out of the ground. Every spring he buys new bushes. Moves old ones. In April they begin blooming, wildly yellow, coral, lavender, red, orange.

Our youngest daughter wanders in the yard with me, catching ladybugs. Carrying her little pruning shears in her soft, small hand, she helps me cut armfuls of the best flowers and we fill vases, bowls, old pickle jars. Strawberries planted years ago still bear fruit, shiny and red under a blanket of fallen rose petals.

There is a big patch of tomatoes for a season’s worth of fresh salsa, cold gazpacho and Sunday Ragu bubbling loudly on the stove. The Early Girl and Better Boy plants are big this year, their branches already sagging from so many tomatoes. My husband pureed the first harvest and made Bloody Marys from scratch.

Sliced thick, they will go on top of juicy Fourth of July hamburgers while our daughters, suddenly as tall as those Early Girl vines, run around the backyard at dusk with sparklers.

There is a wide row of Fresno peppers in his garden. Hollowed and cored, we stuff the tips with a smokehouse almond, pack them with blue cheese and top them with bacon crumbles. Friends and family, sweating from the summer heat, eat dozens, hot off the grill. A magma of melted cheese and hot pepper juice sears our lips, requiring medicinal cold beers to numb the pain before we all jump back in the pool.

My husband’s eggplant are flourishing this year. The small Japanese ones get stir-fried with purple Thai basil growing nearby, and simmered in coconut milk for a quick, weeknight curry. The big shiny ones will be sliced thick, salted, then pressed between towels. Weighted down by a plate and a heavy jar of his homemade pickles, the pressure squeezes out the eggplant’s bitter juice. Then it’s breaded, fried, covered with fresh tomato sauce and topped with cheese. Eggplant Parmigiana is a favorite summer dinner on Sunday nights when his family comes over.

Not everything in the yard is successful. He harvested 10 blueberries this year. They were sweet and delicious, fragrantly navy underneath their misty gray coating, and I wanted more. The next morning he was outside early, frowning and tinkering with his drip irrigation. Thirsty Meyer lemon, grapefruit and Valencia orange trees growing along our fence struggle constantly. A neighbor’s redwood trees tower over them, guzzling their water.

Gardening occasionally provides my husband with small, unexpected victories. An old tree that had produced only one, tiny avocado suddenly has dozens. There is a glimmer of hope for homegrown guacamole when football season starts. Sometimes he just gives up. The leggy herbs left to go to seed last summer billow wildly out of their assigned redwood box, spilling into the walkway by our trash cans. I joke that we need a machete to take out the garbage, bushwhacking through the thick carpet of purple sage flowers that attracts clouds of bees.

Occasionally, I hear him swearing — when our naughty dog chews up a sprinkler head, or a late May hailstorm pockmarks the peaches. But mostly, there’s whistling while he weeds. Mulches. Digs and prunes.

Despite the heat, the bugs, the endless grueling physical labor and the disappointments, outside in the yard is where my husband is the happiest. Under Mother Nature’s patient watch, it’s where the mysterious potential of dirt, hope, plants, a decade of Valley sunshine and the moisture from blood, and an occasional tear combined to make his inspiration for something beautiful grow in Fresno’s hardpan.

Dawn Golik lives in Fresno with her husband and their two young daughters. Her email is dawn.golik@gmail.com. To learn more about the Marjaree Mason Center, visit www.mmcenter.org. Comment by going to fresnobee.com/opinion and clicking on the Valley Voices.

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