This was written for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show magazine. Thanks to them for permission to post it here.
Foreign correspondents don’t have a great reputation for gardening. What with a new OJ Simpson trial about to start, an imminent presidential election, and Golden Age Hollywood celebrities having a habit of dying unexpectedly, I didn’t think I’d be any different. It was August 1996 and I was moving into the BBC Los Angeles Correspondent’s apartment – at the top of a plain concrete triplex on a steep hill in the old suburb of Silverlake, just above the 101 Hollywood Freeway.
But the first time I stepped inside I felt like Dorothy after the cyclone; opening a door from a black and white world and stepping into a Technicolor Oz. The front door opened not into a room, but onto a generous open air deck, built on the edge of a steep hill, partly shaded by a wooden pergola. Green tendrils hung carelessly around the edges of a stunning view of Downtown LA’s skyscrapers, which were outlined against a pure blue sky. A look around the deck revealed a sorrier picture. It was like an insult to that view: A tinsel green piece of Astro Turf for a lawn, a white plastic patio table and chairs. There were two long but empty flowerboxes along the balcony and, in a grey hexagonal planter, I saw the wizened skeleton of some sort of unidentifiable plant. A paper like husk fluttered from the tip of a wing. The soil was grey in its state of dehydration.
Then I saw the hosepipe right there next to it. By instinct I put down my suitcase and turned on the tap. Within 24 hours the skeleton began to reanimate. The paper husk turned from sepia to deep cerise, softening and opening up like a Chinese paper lantern trick. Within a week I recognised it with delight as a thriving bougainvillea, just like the elegant jewelled green creepers that filled the city – growing wild by the cracked concrete freeways and along the high walls of the manicured gardens of Bel-Air.
My weekdays were spent rushing between courthouses, downtown offices and movie studios to file my reports back to London from a windowless box of a room in the ABC Network News studios. But that first weekend I went to a garden centre where, unable to fathom the seasons idle thoughts of James Ellroy’s noir thriller ‘The Black Dahlia’ made me, on a whim, try a packet of dahlia seeds in the barren flower boxes of my balcony.
Newly married, but separated by my six month posting, I turned my attention to my little deck garden. It seemed to take so little effort to make it flourish. Just regular watering, the California sun did the rest. A neighbour did have to complain once that my diligent watering occasionally leaked through gaps in the deck to their apartment below.
Soon I had fat dahlias in bright cheeky colours – red, orange and yellow. They sat there happily as I sipped my Earl Grey tea, reading the morning papers and watching the sun rise behind Downtown’s skyscrapers each morning. I strung up a simple washing-line – the warm breeze drying my clothes in an hour and scenting them faintly of clean grass, while my American neighbours ran the energy hungry electric dryer in the laundry room. In the evening I would go running past the pointed heads of the Bird of Paradise flowers, which grew in the grander gardens of the Spanish Mission and Modernist homes around the sparkling Silver Lake Reservoir. But I’d end my day on my deck, the dusky haze lit up by police helicopters buzzing like insects over the city’s sprawl.
The surprises of my LA garden continued when my husband came to stay at Christmas. He expressed his concern about the large papery wasps’ nest he’d spotted in the carport. While we stood there looking at it, there emerged an emerald green flash and a whir of tiny wings. We smiled at each other in our shared discovery of the hummingbirds.
During that posting my apartment got burgled. They took my Victorian engagement ring with its cat’s eye rubies and diamonds. But I remember my time on Westerly Terrace with love, for the jewels that grew and flew in my secret garden.