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Great American Road Trips, 1999

What do you do when your yard is the neighborhood embarrassment?When spring is on its way and your garden still looks post-nuclear?The only sensible option is to hop in the car and seek seedlings. And that's exactly what brings my husband, Greg, and me to the coast of northern California, where cultivated cultivators go to source their plants. Besides, it's a great excuse for a romantic weekend.

Our quest begins in San Francisco, where we stay at the Sherman House, a mansion stuffed with Jacobean and Biedermeier furniture. Out our bedroom window we glare at the immaculate formal garden designed by famed landscaper Thomas Church. It is hellishly intimidating. From first light a gardener is out there clipping and burrowing.

To make matters worse, we tour the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, where the dwarf cypresses pruned to emulate peonies make us feel even more inadequate. Who has time to get on hands and knees and snip treelets?

Troubled, I suggest we go shopping. We soon discover the pièce de résistance of outdoor antiques stores. Yard Art is crammed with objects: a flawlessly distressed birdbath with three interlocking Roman maidens, a portion of an 1860's iron fence, a giant weathered Fiske urn. If we can't keep a garden alive, we'll distract people by scattering fabulous things about.

A friend has advised us not to leave the Bay Area without seeing the Gardener, so we cross the Bay Bridge to Berkeley. The advice was solid; the store sells pure taste. It has everything from organic lettuce seeds to a $230 cherrywood salad bowl in which to serve up the fruits of your labor. I buy a set of arty stainless-steel tools and a floral book entitled The Besler Florilegium. I believe I'm getting in the mood.

Finally we head north to Bolinas, a coast town populated with old and young hippies, artists, and rich people who have dropped out of urban living. Certain residents are so anti-visitor they repeatedly chop down the sign at the turnoff. Because Greg is one of those men who are natural navigators, we get there without a problem-and then try to look as if we belong.

We have to hurry to our appointment with Sarah Hammond. When Smith & Hawken started their catalogue company, they hired Hammond to develop the nursery. These days she conducts her own workshops on seasonal topics such as rose pruning, and opens her magnificent garden for tours. Her house is like a Zen temple, all creams and beiges and pebbles in stone bowls, but the outside blazes with color. Her garden is a fusion of Asia, Europe (she spent years bringing plants from England), and California. Gardening, Sarah believes, should be enjoyable, not a struggle. People should plant things appropriate to their locale, things that will stay alive. I'm sold; we go to the nursery out back and buy some spectacular blue globe thistles and a rare euphorbia. Sarah promises they are both stalwart. Then she regards me suspiciously and says, "But you will have to water them occasionally."

We triumphantly call it a day and check into Manka's, a quirky old hunting lodge in Inverness. We're staying in the Fishing Cabin, with an open-to-the-sky shower canopied by redwoods, a private hot tub, a turn-of-the-century bathtub designed for two, and a garden that bulges with rhododendrons, azaleas, heather, and lavender. When Margaret Grade bought the place in 1992, she kept some of the old plants, added new ones, put in a secluded lawn, and erected unpeeled cypress fences. The place is pure vegetative bliss.

After a wonderful breakfast of Frisbee-size pancakes at Manka's restaurant, we visit Mostly Natives, a small nursery in nearby Tomales that stocks trees and shrubs indigenous to California-meaning most are drought-tolerant. We pick up some ceanothus and manzanita shrubs in case we let Sarah Hammond down and forget to water.

Farther north and inland is Sebastopol. It may lack the charm of the seaside villages, but it's a mecca of specialty nurseries. We have time for only a few, so, being a fool for roses, I select Vintage Gardens. It has one of the world's largest collections of roses, with about 1,200 varieties in the nursery and 3,000 available by mail order. All are grown on their own roots-a fact that will make aficionados nod approvingly. Greg insists on seeing California Carnivores, in Forestville. (I'm happy because it's right by the award-winning Mark West winery, so I can sip myself silly while he peers at insect-devouring plants.) Fortunately, he comes away without needing to own any.

The next day we make the three-hour haul on Highway 1 to Elk, a fantastic old town with the finest view yet. Despite overcast skies, the roiling sea and giant rock islands are unearthly in their beauty. We check into the Sandpiper House Inn, a B&B whose lovely multicolored garden slopes to a cliff. Next door is the newly refurbished Harbor House Inn. Very elegant, it has a restaurant that overlooks a vegetable-and-flower garden and the stunning slate-green ocean. We'll stay there next time.

Elk is my favorite town so far. It has a country blitheness, but with an undercurrent of chic. The Greenwood Pier Garden Shop carries offbeat goods ranging from the hideous (fiendish stone gargoyles) to the sublime (Moroccan iron windows, patterned terra-cotta stepping stones). Town restaurants tend to serve imaginative, organic foods, and the Elkians lack the defensiveness we felt in Bolinas.

Straight after a zucchini-and-feta soufflé breakfast at Sandpiper House, we drive about a half-hour up the coast to Mendocino. The heavens look as if they're about to open, so we come to a halt outside an army surplus store and rush in to purchase some truly monstrous rain gear. We will not be stopped.

Mendocino is charming but rather touristy. We browse the shops, including Fittings for Home & Garden, which has all manner of costly items of questionable usefulness.

When we walk into the Mendocino Hotel on Main Street, the dark wood paneling and plush drapery shriek of a gunslinging western movie set. In fact, in the late 1800's, when Mendocino was a booming logging town, the building was a saloon and pool hall. Our spacious room is decorated with photos of settler women looking none too happy with their lot.

By now our car resembles a roving greenhouse, with no room for so much as a bonsai. It's time to head home and prostrate ourselves in the dirt. We will bow, we will plant, we will pray. And if we're lucky, our garden will erupt in verdant splendor. Passers-by will stop and stare in envy, whispering about the stupendous change that has been wrought overnight. Assuming, of course, we can overcome the small problem with the gophers.

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