Call me Dagwood. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—I read the funny papers in the Sunday newspaper. I was a child but not a child of the 1930s. Still Blondie, the 1930s comic strip featuring Dagwood Bumstead, engaged me, though I didn’t want it to, other unlikely comics less so. I remember Mary Worth, who reminded me of Folgers Coffee ads with Mrs. Olson who counseled despairing young women on how to make coffee for their new, unappreciative husbands. If the truth be known, like most people, I read them all in a half-hearted way, always as an afterthought. But of Blondie I took special notice because it made me wince.
The house where we’re staying is located on California’s central coast, not more than a mile or so from the Pacific Ocean. When we first came here in a damp, drizzly November, we were struck by the thoughtlessness and illogic of the landscaping. To the front of the house, behind a faded, gray fence and before the grass of the yard started, were stray patches of African daisy. Not the beautiful new African daisy cultivars available today, these were the straggly, common white kind that fades to purple with age. There were bird of paradise plants, placed, by their look, at random, and a patch of oleander. By the side door, two right angled columns of Pittosporum tenuifolium were placed so that they obscured the view and impeded entry and egress, as a building engineer might say. Immediately, before the house was a confluent swath of blue agapanthus. They were pretty enough but looked tired and like 1970 all over again.
Most puzzling though, were three trees growing immediately behind the fence. One remains unidentified; the other two were sweet pittosporum and coastal live oak—both nice enough trees. They appeared to have simply sprung up where their seeds had fallen. And all three had been topped at about 5 feet above the ground and had masses of dense, straggly branches growing to about 15 feet. My best guess was that this had been done in a mostly failed attempt to shelter the front of the west-facing house from the hot evening sun.
The backyard was more of the same: two old and over grown palm trees towered above a patch of sickly looking red bougainvillea, threatening to drop widow-making spaethes, and several yellowish small citrus trees planted in the shade of a large oak slowly declined. Even after the rains stopped, the sprinkler system kept the lawn so wet that it squished under foot, until we turned it off. How come, we wondered?
As a trained plant scientist, landscaping this property was clearly within my purview; my wife had other duties and responsibilities. All began well. I relocated plants and removed others—the pittosporums (including the large topped one by the fence), the unidentified tree, and the oleander. I dug up all the agapanthus plants and put them by the side of the road with a “FREE” sign beside them; they were gone in 30 minutes. Outside the fence, I planted a hedge of native ceanothus and toyon that I reasoned would require little care or no water and would grow up to dampen road noise. Finally, I pruned the topped oak to promote growth in three of its stronger branches.
The trouble began in surveying the holes and bare spots that I had created. I sensibly thought low-water and low-maintenance plants such as local chaparral plants should dominate our yard. My wife thought otherwise. She required exotic plants that wanted lots of water and care—and roses, which she had not been able to grow at home because of Japanese beetles and cold.
At first, we compromised, but quarreled about it. Our plantings coexisted. She planted her plants and I mine. But the yard became a mish-mash of conflicting influences—rose and begonia here, manzanita and woolly blue curl there. It made no sense. We were recreating what we had found when we first arrived. So I began moving my plants to a part of the backyard—“The California Corner”, I ruefully called it. Dagwood would have done no less.
In Blondie, Dagwood seems to be a fool. He eats giant sandwiches late at night, hides from his wife, collides with the mailman, and falls asleep at work. And he always gives in to his wife. He is almost painful to watch. The other characters are no different. But the comic strip is still popular after 81 years. What accounts for this incredible run? Well, Blondie reminds us of ourselves, but ourselves at a distance. It is the very triviality and goofiness of the characters that allow us to see them and the interplay of their strengths and weaknesses aloofly and not distinguish too much of ourselves. But look carefully, and there you are.
As my wife expanded her domain in the front yard, it gradually took on a more coherent and pleasant form; it began to look like a garden, which is what we’d wanted in the first place. Dagwood may give in to his wife, but ultimately it’s on his own terms and often with a catch. My interest, I realized, had never been to create a unified, diversified whole for its own sake—a garden. That’s my wife’s concern. I wanted to grow plants I’d never grown before, keeping them in pots and watching them until they’d reached some stature or state that satisfied my curiosity. At which point, I’d plant them in the ground and forget them until some later time when they caught my attention again.