Sow There! After the fire, growing goes on, Jan. 25, 2019

A bit of statuary in planted bowl survived the Camp Fire at Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise, but many of the plants didn’t. (Steve Schoonover — Enterprise-Record)
January 25, 2019 

I haven’t visited the place we once knew as Paradise. It’s been in my thoughts of course. I’ve watched videos, viewed aerial photos taken by drones, scoured incident report maps and conjured many a memory in my mind. I’ve talked to friends who lost everything and joined conversations with strangers in grocery stores.

Yet, unless I have an actual reason to drive up the hill, it feels like it would be disrespectful to drive around in someone else’s tragedy. I’m curious, of course, to look at the property the Handsome Woodsman once owned — to see if any trees I once knew will have a chance to regrow.

The Carr Fire whipped through Redding last spring. At the time, we thought it was the worst we would see in Northern California for a long time.

Last weekend I accompanied some travelers to the Shasta Caverns, and took a short segue through Redding neighborhoods that had burned.

I could tell where the new fence lines began and ended. The pine boards were light brown, not yet weathered by the rains. Wattles — those rolls of straw contained in mesh — held the earth that would otherwise slide down slight slopes. As has been the case in Paradise, the devastation was seemingly random. One home would look mostly secure, with vacant lots nearby. Debris has been cleared and in some cases,  you can see an outline where a new home will begin.

Growing again

Of the many tragedies, I gasped when I knew that Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise had been among the taken. I spent hours wandering through those neatly-kept rows, chatting with Jerry Mendon, who would lead the way in his electric cart. The first time I visited Mendon’s was with Elaine Gray, who cowrote this column once upon a time. I gasped the day I first visited the timeless nursery — a clam feeling enveloped me. Elaine and I agreed the place was a gardener’s Disneyland.

I count myself among the many who hope John Mendon will take a long breath, then decide to reopen the irreplaceable garden space. He’s a treasure chest of knowledge, passed along by his father and cultivated through his own career in the business.

Then I thought of David Walther, of Spring Valley Nursery, in Yankee Hill, which was also in the path of the inferno. Walther said he heard of other garden-center losses, including Paradise Garden Center on Clark Road.

As for Walther, the aftermath of the fire was almost as big of a hit as the flames. He lost only a percentage of his work to fire. When the power went out the damage to his plants increased. No power meant no water.

Next, the deer came. You can’t blame them. They browsed and nibbled on what remained. If Walther had been home, his dogs would have been home. The dogs chase away the deer.

“A lot of my pots melted off,” Walther said. He needs to wait to see if the roots were cooked.

He may have luck with some plants that were insulated by soil. His guess is that many herbaceous plants that grow from a crown will live to see the sun again. Plants with stems are likely lost.

“This garden is a learning garden,” he said, sounding about midpoint between acceptance and optimism. “I will learn a lot in the spring.”

At his property, it was not a flash of fire as made people dash from Paradise.

“There are signs where things burned slowly,” perhaps for 24 hours, he said.

His plan is to begin propagating new plants in February.

One task will be helping his soil to renew.

First steps

Local Master Gardener Laura Lukes wrote a fascinating The Real Dirt column on Dec. 14, about hydrophobic soil. This is when soil is damaged by intense heat. The damage causes the soil to halt absorption of water, which is part of the reason we’ll suffer from increased erosion and even flash floods.

Walther said adding dish soap to scorched potted plants will help — use about a teaspoon per gallon. This allows water to flow more easily.

For Walther, gardening is something he does, and from the sound of it, something perhaps he couldn’t stop if he tried.

“There will be rebuilding,” he said. “We will do it smarter — not mass plantings. We’ll keep more space between plants.”

It’s a help that his home was spared. Walther rebuilt after the Poe Fire in 2001. Firefighters used his well-maintained property for equipment while the blaze was being battled this time around. He knows to keep piles of pine needles maintained. Those piles — a safe distance away — did not burn this time, while other areas did.

When he heard people were being evacuated, he donned a backpack blower and blew out the rain gutters.

Overall, he sounded hopeful. Cyclamen (the showy winter flowers), have a “huge storage system” underground. Parts of these will likely regrow.

One note of advice is to feel around areas were plants were known to grow. If the roots are not mush, they may have survived. Roses are one example, unless the crown of the plant was charred, he said.

“I had an apple tree that burned down in the last fire,” about a dozen years ago, Walther said.

“It threw up 15 to 20 suckers. I didn’t know if it would be above the graft or not.”

He pruned off all but one sucker and “Now I have this beautiful apple tree.”

I’m hopeful to hear about Walther and others who will battle on, put shovels into the ground — again and again. That’s what gardeners do.

I’m also glad to know his place will be open and that he will continue to offer plants for sale at the Saturday Farmers Market in Chico. We’ll have to wait until spring when he has more to sell.

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