Don’t ring the doorbell at John and Bonnie McCabe’s home at this time of year.
Like most dedicated Central Coast gardeners, they are probably “somewhere out in the garden.” The warm sunshine, longer days and that primordial promise of spring beckon the McCabes and other home gardeners to return outdoors to new plants and new projects.
The McCabes’ adventure in home gardening began in 1998 when they were visiting their college-age children attending Cal Poly and Sonoma State.
“I wonder what’s up in those beautiful oak-covered hills,” John McCabe said as they were driving north through Atascadero. They didn’t realize on their exploratory drive into the hills that they passed the property that would eventually become their home. At the time they were living in Ventura, where he was just finishing up his career in aerospace, first as a flight test engineer in the Air Force, then as chief of advanced missile design at Northrop Aviation.
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They soon purchased the ridgeline home and property and began the process of transforming the bare dirt into both a traditionally landscaped yard of ornamentals and a productive fruit orchard and vegetable garden.
John McCabe’s first project was a small water lily pond made from a satellite dish, surrounded by ornamental strawberry, pineapple mint, Pacific coast iris and lemon balm, with mosquito fish and a small waterfall for filtering.
He then gradually added decks off the house with trellises for vines, lawns, walkways, perennial beds and several varieties of both evergreen and deciduous trees. Pyracantha and climbing roses were planted along the fence separating the ornamental and the productive areas.
The couple discovered that with her Minnesota gardening roots and his engineering skills, they make a good horticultural team. She combs through the garden catalogues and local nurseries, chooses and plants the vegetables for the current year, while her husband designs and builds the systems to accommodate her selections.
He constructed several raised beds, composting boxes, an outdoor sink and workbench, arbors and deer fences and also installed drip and soaker irrigation. Throughout the year, he tends the fruit trees, grapes vines, olallieberries and climbing roses that surround the vegetable garden.
“John has a green thumb; he can make anything grow,” said his wife, evidenced by many 5-gallon containers of cuttings, transplants and seedlings in his transitional “laboratory” beds.
When asked to give a name for her garden a few years ago, Bonnie McCabe called it “No Rhyme or Reason,” because she’s always trying something new, experimenting with different techniques and plants.
For example, this year she added Black Cherokee and Ace tomatoes to her favorites, Celebrity and Roma. She’s going to try “straw bale gardening” for some of her tomatoes this year. In her raised bed of green beans, she supplemented her successful Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake green beans with a new climbing French variety.
The McCabes’ garden is “totally organic,” with natural methods used for pest removal.
“We hose off the ants and aphids, pick off the snails, cover new lettuce and spinach with shade cloth available at Home Depot for bird protection, and rotate the crops,” Bonnie McCabe said.
Instead of using plastic for wrapping the raised garden boxes for pest, frost and wind protection this year, she tried a new product called Agribon Row Cover, a breathable fabric. She’ll decide at the end of the season whether to use it again.
McCabe appreciates each year’s bountiful harvest, which she calls the “rewards of chapped hands and broken fingernails.”
With five children, eleven grandchildren and one great-grandchild, she likes to make sure there is lots of fresh, wholesome food at “Grandma’s house.” Her favorite apple for applesauce is the Gravenstein, while the Fuji apples are good for eating along with apricots and Asian pears. In June, she makes jam and cobblers from the olallieberries, and later cooks up big batches of sauce from Roma tomatoes.
“I think the garden is the most peaceful place and best therapy for soothing the mind,” she says. “I look forward to experimenting with something new each year, and being surprised by the results!”
So, if you’re looking for Bonnie or John on any day in spring, check the garden first.