The Friendship Garden

Kelly RadinskyBy Kelly Radinsky      May 14, 2021

Share Story on:

The Friendship Garden
PHOTO BY JACKIE RADINSKY John Ghini and Kelly Radinsky in the little garden that grew and grew friendship.
It all started on a 120-degree day last summer, when the juniper that divides our yards threw in the towel. Forty years was enough, apparently. I tried my best at resuscitation for a few months, but the burnt behemoth was gone for good. It had done its job valiantly as a property divider, shade provider, and most adorably, bunny hutch. My neighbors and I each removed our half of the juniper, which had such an extensive root system most of it will remain forever underground. But, with the upper half of this plant now gone, it looked so spacious. And odd. We could see everything! Our front yards were…open to each other. We could see cars, tools, the comings and goings of each other…it was decidedly not anonymous. We’ve lived next door to John and Norma for 20 years. They’ve been here for around 50. We’ve been friendly and our dogs have always carried on love affairs through the back fence. They’ve always been very kind to our kids and given us yummy gifts. To us, John has always been Indiana Jones. He has taught my husband how to catch and release rattlesnakes (and moved a few for us), can build anything (his and Norma’s yearly Halloween creations are epic), was always off on hiking treks to places like the Andes, all while wearing his signature explorer hat. We had gone to visit him to look at the moons of Jupiter through a high-powered telescope when he was a docent at the Adamson House in Malibu (he’s now a docent at the Getty Center), but we had never really talked. Like, really talked.
PHOTO BY KELLY RADINSKY Birds and butterflies love Salvia Bee’s Bliss (front) that has fragrance and is edible. Jerusalem Sage (in back) with its fuzzy leaves and whorls of lemon-yellow flowers is an evergreen shrub.
Back to the now-gone juniper. We had this little berm between our yards that was now a mound of dirt. I threw out the idea to John (we are the two who are outside puttering a lot), to see if he and Norma would like the idea of a citrus tree or two? We are in a pandemic, I’ve been growing some food and, it being a sunny spot, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I offered to plant the trees and Norma and John could help themselves whenever the trees started bearing fruit.

That is how this tale of a friendship garden begins. I planted the Meyer Lemon and the Oro Blanco Grapefruit trees on opposite ends of the mound. But there was still…Glorious. Space. I wondered: Would they let me do more?
I love to garden and during this long year, it’s practically all I’ve done. Getting my hands in the dirt to nurture living beings, connect to nature, quiet the brain chatter is a salve to my soul. My front yard is not large. It is where English garden meets Native California garden and is a sanctuary for butterflies and hummingbirds.

I’m no purist. I’m more of an etherealist and the concept hit me like a ton of mulch: This little hill between us could extend the beauty for the hummingbirds and all of us. We could enjoy it together. I had obsessively been reading about California Native plants and this sunny spot could be the perfect spot to plant a variety and watch local wildlife. Better yet, it would not need sprinklers.

Again, I gingerly broached the idea to John, as the plethora of ideas were crowding my brain, keeping me up at night, obsessing. I had to see if I could do more. A blank canvas is about the most exciting thing on earth to me. How would he feel, I asked, if I did a sweet row of low-water bushes around the perimeter of our yards and didn’t divide, but unified them? He liked the idea, so I got Indian Hawthorn “Clara” bushes (low-water but non-native) and he went and got more. He and my husband dug about 20 holes and we planted these sweet bushes that grow about three feet high, around the perimeter. John is in his eighties, by the way, and is so much more able to dig 20 holes than we are!
PHOTO BY KELLY RADINSKY Desert Mallow, a shrubby drought-tolerant perennial blooms year-round in mild climates.
Then I started talking to John about all my native plant research and how once the root system is established—long soaks of 18 inches, then dry out and start again—they need little water or care. I was telling him about how important it is for the local insects and birds to have these local plants to feed on. I didn’t seem to be annoying him. Yet. I wondered if he’d be open to me choosing a variety of sages, salvias and wildflowers and just planting them, caring for them, showing him what needed to be done. Together. He was open. I asked him if he had any preferences and he said he didn’t want tall plants in between our property.

He wanted openness.

With openness, a world of endless possibilities exists. Open borders. Open hearts. With openness you get vulnerability, which allows a friendship to go to a deeper level. You get mutual trust. It’s a pact to have each other’s back. I may have read too much into it, but I felt touched by this request. Just the fact that Indiana Jones didn’t want a wall between us made me feel special!
PHOTO BY KELLY RADINSKY Lantana is for butterflies and can reach almost three feet in one growing season.
I spent many weeks making lists and reading up on ten times more plants than we had space for. Natives that could be in the shade of the citrus trees. Salvias that could be in front and create a little shade on the very sunny south side, for their trunks. Flowers that could be downhill and take the runoff water. Sages that would add pops of color and a variety of shapes and heights. All of them must be loved by our precious birds and bees. A lot of expectation and responsibility resting on the shoulders of this tiny sliver of land.

A note about the land: I am constantly in gratitude for this land. It was stolen from the Tongva and Chumash people. It always feels weird to refer to “my” land and the only way I can deal with that reality is to be a steward of the land. To show as much respect to the plants and animals as I can and continue to learn more. I often close my eyes and listen to the hawks and owls I get to hear daily, try and shut out the noise of the Boulevard and imagine what it felt like and sounded like for the Indigenous people of Topanga. I imagine them going about their lives in their community and my heart swells. This is a magical place, and I don’t think any person who has ever lived here, hasn’t felt it.
PHOTO BY KELLY RADINSKY Magenta Rock Rose (cistus sunset)
With the work out front came a bunch of conversations about the variety of Hawks and other birds we get to watch. We talked about family, daily pandemic dealings, when they’d be getting their vaccinations, and how they ended up coming to the U.S. from England (via N.Y. and Toronto). When I came to L.A. it was fun but John had stories like this: He had been living in freezing Rochester, N.Y. One day he passed a magazine stand and a magazine on California caught his eye. Enticing photos of Palm Trees and sunshine hit him like a bolt of lightning, and within three hours, he was on a bus, moving to L.A. This was the ‘60s and it was a very cool place to move to. It was the beginning of his new life, where he would end up meeting his wife and having a family.
PHOTO BY KELLY RADINSKY Germander Sage is both drought- and deer-tolerant.
I looked forward to seeing John and Norma daily and hoped I wasn’t an annoyance with me always being outside (ready to chat!). I also ended up talking to many other neighbors. People were interested in what we were planting and building together. They were surprised to see me sitting in John’s driveway, weeding, watering, or digging. It’s kind of an unusual concept. There are neighbors I have never had a single conversation with who stopped by daily on their way up the hill to hike and we’d have a short exchange. I was getting to know people during the pandemic. Through gardening.

Neighbors started dropping off bags of lemons to me, which my daughter put to use in her baking. I got to know the little kids and the dogs. I happily answered questions about the plantings, about my kids, and I learned how everyone was holding up in isolation. I felt more connected to my community than ever.
PHOTO BY KELLY RADINSKY Hot Lips Sage is a long-blooming sage that blooms all summer with eye-catching red and white bicolor flowers, is deer and rabbit resistant.
One morning, John came out and told me about the day before when he was out front working. Around 4 p.m., a mountain lion walked across the hillside, right in front of him. John has been here 50 years, and this was the first sighting for him. The giant cat walked across and then back again. While I was bummed (regrettably I wasn’t out there to see it…in disbelief), I was incredibly happy for him and loved hearing the details and his enthusiasm.

I had shared with John and Norma about my family of origin and some of how complicated my early life was. So, when my mother passed away a few weeks ago, it was a great comfort when they consoled me. They knew me.

I was grateful that they had faith in my abilities (which I made clear were not amazing) and my vision (which was shifting hourly). I was honored to spark the gardening bug in John.
I plant like I pack for a trip: overzealously, in excited anticipation, omitting nothing. I have filled nearly every open spot with little plants promising to grow up (and not move out!). Desert and Indian mallows, lantana, firecracker, bee balm, salvia bon-bon, bee’s bliss salvia, Jerusalem sage, California fuchsia, rock roses, red buckwheat, yarrow, hummingbird sage, red autumn sage, verbena, hot lips salvia, meadow sage, germander sage, and scattered non-native irises, petit butterflies (sweet pea), geraniums, scabiosas, cornflowers and daisies. There are more plants squeezing in as I have also planted seeds for borage, calendula, lemon balm and herbs.
Our garden is thriving. The light changes constantly and gives a completely different feel, every day, every hour. Everything is filling in and the Swallowtail Butterflies and Hummingbirds are out in force. What started as researching California Native plants while I was lying in bed sick for a few weeks, turned into a passion. What started as having great neighbors, turned into deep friendship with fascinating people. What started as a sanctuary for butterflies and hummingbirds turned into a haven for all of us.
PHOTO BY KELLY RADINSKY Salvia Greggi Autumn with hummingbird
Kelly Radinsky

Share Story on:



May 14, 2021

Thinking Out Loud
News Feature
Health Trends
All Things Connected
Rude Interruptions
My Corner of the Canyon