My Seattle Garden

by Priscilla Long Issue: Spring/Summer 2019


           …Adam bit the fruit, and Paradise, like all abandoned gardens, returned to the wild…Adam's sons developed
           green thumbs to repair the damage, but every garden since has been but a leaf of Paradise.

                     —Derek Jarman


First thing each morning, I pee in a bucket. It's a blue bucket, plastic, square shaped. And I make coffee. I open my journal.  I write.

Both urine and coffee pertain to my Seattle garden.

Coffee is a Seattle thing. (So is urine.) Seattle has ten times more coffee establishments per 100,000 residents than the United States has overall. I like mine dark-roasted and black. I drink a pot of coffee as I write. In this way, I wake up.

I then go to the garden. How bucolic, you may think. But this is an urban garden. A small urban garden. By 7 a.m. out on North 40th Street traffic is moaning by, grinding by. The back-up beeps have begun. Overhead, an airplane drones. Visually, though, the garden is secluded behind a slatted cedar fence.

First I marry coffee grounds to garden dirt. Coffee turns soil acidic and some plants—the shore pine in its mega-pot—like it that way. Then I measure the growth of the sapling paper birch (Betula papyrifera). Four days ago it was four-feet-nine-inches high. Today it is five feet high.

Next, urine. I add ten parts water and pour the mixture into the ground to fertilize—this morning—the cascara tree.

For, when it leaves the body, urine is sterile. It's composed of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Just like bought fertilizer. (It does not have quite enough potassium, which is solved by adding wood ash.) Urine, diluted with water, does not pollute streams or groundwater. It costs nothing.

This is a beginning native-plant garden. Only five years old. It's looking lush and thick and bees have begun to visit.

Why native? We're losing native plants to development and to invasive weeds—English ivy, English laurel, bindweed. We're losing native bugs and native bees and native butterflies—pollinators. We're losing songbirds. They fly in to feed on the berries we plant for them (or for ourselves), but they also require protein—insects—to feed to their nestlings.

Insects evolved with native plants. When they lay their eggs on an exotic plant (a plant that evolved elsewhere), such as the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii, from China), the eggs hatch but the caterpillars can't eat the plant and starve to death. I loved my butterfly bush. I loved its vivid dark blue flowers. I loved to watch butterflies nectaring on them. I didn't get the connection between my butterfly bush and the butterfly's doom. When I stumbled upon the facts of the matter in a book by Douglas W. Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home), I bushwhacked my butterfly bush.

As the environmental writer Kathleen Dean Moore summarizes our situation, since 1970, 40 percent of "all beings with the breath of life, animals and plants, have been erased from the face of the Earth." We trade (she continues) "wide-winged albatross for plastic six-pack rings. We trade a meadow miraculous with butterflies for an industrial park to manufacture My Little Ponies."

This applies to here, to my Seattle garden. My native violet (viola adunca) has bright green heart-shaped leaves and violet flowers on nodding pedicels. In Washington state it is endangered. My baby giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), potentially ten feet high, its species the largest fern in North America, is, in Washington state endangered. My Henderson's checkermallows with their palm-shaped leaves and stalks of rosy-pink flowers, are, in Washington state, threatened. Other natives—Douglas aster, Douglas iris, iris tenax, false lily of the valley, goat's beard, bleeding heart, serviceberry, shore pine, incense cedar—are neither endangered nor threatened nor vulnerable. Still, they're good for local bugs and local bugs are good for birds.

Will growing this small native-plant garden do the slightest bit to save the Earth? Is this garden good for anything besides abetting my own well-being? I don't delude myself. But I'm doing something, which is better than doing nothing. And that something is what Tallamy argues for: "The costs of increasing the percentage and biomass of natives in our suburban [read urban] landscapes are small, and the benefits are immense. Increasing the percentage of natives in suburbia is a grassroots solution to the extinction crisis. To succeed, we do not need to invoke governmental action; we do not need to purchase large tracts of pristine habitat that no longer exist; we do not need to limit ourselves to sending money to national and international conservation organizations…. We can each make a measurable difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby."

I can do this.

The plants themselves appear unaware of any untoward extinction situation, whether dire or not-so-dire. Every day I sit among them and breath the oxygen they expel. They are dark green and bright green and on any given day (I'm writing in June) one or another comes into bloom. They seem pleased with themselves. Pleased, it may be, to be alive.

Priscilla Long

Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer of poetry, creative nonfiction, science, fiction, and history, and a long-time independent teacher of writing. Her how-to-write guide is The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life (Second Edition, University of New Mexico Press). Her work appears widely and her books are: Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (University of Georgia Press), Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Poets, and Other Creators (Coffeetown Press), and Crossing Over: Poems (University of New Mexico Press). She is also author of Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry. Her awards include a National Magazine Award. Her science column, "Science Frictions," ran for 92 weeks in The American Scholar. She earned an MFA from the University of Washington and serves as Founding and Consulting Editor of, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history. She grew up on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.