Nick and Anna-Marie told me they had planted a white sage in their backyard, and the plant’s tag said it was a “compact” version but it had grown over five feet tall and wide.

I looked out their back door to see the plant. There it was: A robust white sage with flower spikes extending as far as any wild one I’ve seen on our Southern California hills.

Nick said he had heard a phrase that sums up a situation like this: “Plants don’t read books.”

That’s a perfect way to capture it. The problem is that we do.

We read on a plant tag or in a book or hear on a gardening podcast or watch on a video that a certain plant is supposed to act in a certain way, and then we expect to see that. But plants don’t always follow what’s been written about them; in fact, they don’t even know what’s been written about them.

In 1954, the first edition of the Sunset Western Garden Book was published. Its entry about growing mango trees in California reads: “Mango: a tropical that will exist in the frost-free areas, but that is about all.”

However, Captain Bucklew had already been growing mangos for almost twenty years, and by 1956 was up to 172 mango trees on his property in Encinitas, and some were doing more than merely existing. Even today, after nearly a century, some of Bucklew’s mango trees continue to flourish.

One of Bucklew’s mango trees planted in 1943, photographed in May 2022.

Paul Thomson, co-founder of the California Rare Fruit Growers, started growing mangos on a property he purchased in Vista in the 1960s, just after the publication of the Sunset Western Garden Book, and some of those trees grew up to fruit very well and continue to do so today.

Mango tree planted by Paul Thomson in Vista, photographed in August 2018.

Good thing these trees hadn’t learned that they weren’t able to do much more than exist, and good thing that Bucklew and Thomson gave them a shot and let the trees speak for themselves.

We must take reality as it is. When our eyeballs present to us something contradictory to what we’ve read or heard, we must believe our eyeballs.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes I find myself unable to immediately process something I’m observing in my yard because it doesn’t comport with what I’ve been primed to see.

Our fight as food gardeners is to hear what the plants are saying to us, unfiltered. And what the weather is saying, and the birds and the bees and the bugs. And the soil.

My friends with the illiterate white sage, Nick and Anna-Marie, have bought a piece of land on which they’ll be building a house and developing a food garden. I met them at the property last month to check it out. They told me about their house plans and planting plans as we strolled through. I looked at the weeds and the native plants, and I looked at the dirt.

I wondered what the United States Department of Agriculture’s Web Soil Survey had to say about the dirt in this area so when I got home I looked it up. The Web Soil Survey classified the parcel’s soil as “Placentia sandy loam.” Sandy loam is a pleasant soil type to work with. Nick had already done a jar test with the soil, and I had felt some of the dirt in my hand while at the property. The jar test and my hand test both indicated a sandy loam too.

But the survey went on to say that this soil in this parcel has a thick layer of clay only 13 inches below the sandy loam. I texted Nick about the layer of clay: “Avocado trees especially would appreciate being planted on slight mounds if you dig and find that true.”

Then I paused to think. What had I seen with my own eyes? At one point during the visit to the land, we had stood next to a trench dug a couple feet deep for a water line, and I recalled that I had seen no clay layer in that trench. It was sandy loam all the way down.

Remember that? I texted Nick. Maybe the USDA Web Soil Survey is wrong?

“Shovel don’t lie!” he wrote back.

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