Mountain Stories: ‘Crazy-Person Gardener’

Pesky problems in your garden?  Winter too harsh or too dry? A few snails? Maybe some powdery mildew?  Howard Weiss will trade his problems for yours.

Mr. Weiss gardens on a third of an acre at about 6,000 feet in Idyllwild, California. He has never gardened in any other conditions.  (He doesn’t know that some of us can throw a plant out the window only to find it growing up the rainspout.)


His bêtes noirs:

  1. Bad, bad soil. Like decomposed granite. Not like it — it is DG.
  2. Ground squirrels. They’re tunnelers. They love root systems. They number in the zillions.
  3. Rabbits. You know what they do.
  4. Mule deer.  They browse and eat.
  5. Regular old squirrels. They eat and dig.
  6. White-headed woodpeckers. Pecking not only his house but also his beloved mountain ash.
  7. Western bark beetle. Killed at least 50 of his giant trees. Once removed, garden exposed to light. Plants died.
  8. Lousy general conditions. He can see thriving greenery 200 feet away in another garden; the same plants die in his.

He has been at war here in his San Jacinto Mountain garden for a quarter of a century. Why does he do it?

Mr. Weiss first saw these enchanting mountains when he was in high school in Los Angeles. His friend the actor Lonnie Thomas was staying in an aunt’s house, who lived in the Garner Valley where the San Jacinto Mountains open up to a gentle valley and the road ends up in Palm Desert. Mr. Weiss visited his friend there.

These mountains worked on him as they do on many city dwellers.  A dozen years after his graduation from Hamilton High, he was walking in Idyllwild’s Fern Valley with another friend, who pointed at a house and said: I think that will be yours.

She was right.  Mr. Weiss has owned the house for 37 years.  But in those days, the heady mid-Seventies, he was a hardworking acoustic designer and sound engineer in Hollywood.

On his first job, the sound equipment burned. He had to fix it.

So he had plenty of training in facing disaster, and then starting over. He would need it in this garden in the mountains.

The Idyllwild house, adjacent to two creeks, was just a summer cottage then. He was working like a madman in Hollywood during the week, and driving in Friday traffic to Idyllwild to work away the weekend on the house in Fern Valley. The house was very, very cold. And, almost as bad, it was stained green. Weekend after weekend, it was: insulate, then nail up new boards. He did this for years.

In Hollywood, he worked with the Beatles, and with the Rolling Stones. (The complete list is, I’m sure, staggering.) He worked sometimes 30 hours straight.  In Idyllwild, he bought 16-foot boards, stuck them in his vehicle and as he turned a corner as they shifted, hit a tree, and broke in half.  It was an interesting life. And he still couldn’t keep warm in the house. (Finally, there was a free-standing wood stove.)

Then, 25 years ago, he met a gardener on a hike. When he saw her garden, he was hooked.

Her stunning, rich and full garden (as he describes it) was in the San Bernardino Mountains.  (The I-10 Freeway and the San Andreas Fault separate the two ranges.) Why couldn’t he make one too? Yes, he lived in a dark forest, but never mind. He would do it; how hard could it be to bring such beautiful color to his yard?

In came truckloads of soil amendments. Up from Hemet came rocks to build beds. Down into the ground went an irrigation system. “And it was hard, hard to dig,” says Mr. Weiss. “There is a web of roots throughout my property. Even with a pointed shovel . . . it is hard to dig.”

The garden was planted. The garden was eaten. Planted. Eaten. Planted. Failed. Then came the oak barrels. Mr. Weiss became, in part, an inadvertent bonsai practitioner. Cages and oak barrels: that’s how he fought back. (“I hate having the plants in jail,” he says.)

Then, between 2000 and 2002, the scourge of the Western bark beetle . The forest here have lost more than a million giant trees; 50 of them were around the house and garden of Mr. Weiss.  Pines, firs, and what’s called incense cedar (it’s really a cypress). They ranged from 90 to 140 feet tall. Then, as you might guess, came sun.

A few beloved plants did survive this environmental shock: mahonia, rose of Sharon, one delphinium, some ground cover, and Mr. Weiss’s two beloved rhododendrons (though their oak barrels were moved under remaining trees).

“I am a crazy-person gardener,” Mr. Weiss says. “Every time I invest in something, I think, ‘You are throwing away this money.’ But I do it anyway.”

He is nurturing, in addition to the survivors;  forsythia, a brand new Japanese maple, ‘Red Dragon,’ a tender sapling, a dwarf redbud; a cotinus, a flowering pear tree, a flowering plum, his mountain ash (its trunk wrapped in black plastic to repel those killer woodpeckers), the dependable rhodies, and, finally, daffodils (“everyone seems to leave them alone”).

What keeps him going in the garden? “I just feel that I must find things that will work.  Spring comes, and I feel this yearning. I just must do it; it’s something I have to do. Color is so important to me. The forest, views and vistas are beautiful, but I love color,” Mr. Weiss says.

“You are never-give-up Howard,” his visitor says, eyeing that delicate Japanese maple and tender redbud.

His biggest regret as a gardener? Not keeping a journal of what has happened year-to-year.

“I often think I should say goodbye to it all,” he says. “But then spring comes and I have to try. I see color, and I say: ‘O.K., one more time.’”