Romana Beltran and her garden are happily growing old together, going through the changing seasons with an exuberance that hasn’t waned, even after decades of constant cultivation.
When she moved into her nearly new Windsor tract house with her husband and two daughters, it was the late 1970s. The backyard abutted an open field and, aside from waist-high grass, it was completely barren. There wasn’t a single plant or tree growing on the property.
But the young, 30-something mom with two young girls immediately dug into her little half acre, turning it into a garden one square foot at a time.
Now, 43 years later, Beltran and her husband, Al, who both worked for Hewlett-Packard, can step out their back door into a fantastic forest of big trees, food crops — 30 different tomatoes alone — vines winding up trellises, perennials, flowering shrubs, pots of succulents and all manner of intriguing structures, furniture and garden “art” foraged from free listings, Craigslist and eBay.
On a recent morning, she pressed juice from a juicer she reclaimed and jury-rigged back into service.
In the early days of her garden, Beltran put in cement paths, which created defined areas for planting and provided a cool track for her daughters to roller skate.
“We’d get 20 yards of dirt at a time. For my birthday, I got a truckload of manure,” she said, chuckling, “and that was my favorite birthday present.”
Neighbors always have been supporters. She recalls the man who saw her and Al pushing a wheelbarrow of soil into the backyard and showed up with his front-end loader to help.
Although the garden already is densely packed with flowers and foliage, Beltran always can manage to find room for an addition or new decoration, repurposed from something else. She even made a “catio” for her felines out of an old china cabinet.
“The plants are my family,” she explained.
Beltran was urban homesteading long before it was a thing. She and Al moved to Windsor all those years ago because of some snippy neighbors in Santa Rosa who didn’t approve of their pet lamb and ducks.
She no longer has farm animals, but she does keep bees, which help keep this fertile space pollinated, healthy and lush.
A lifelong bargain hunter and gatherer who buys almost everything used from yard sales, Craigslist and eBay, Beltran discovered the Windsor Pay Nothing page on Facebook during the pandemic and has become an avid swapper, with a soft spot for ailing and orphaned plants.
“The first year of COVID, I grew probably 500 to 600 garden plants to give away on the Pay Nothing page,” she said. “Through that, I’ve met wonderful people who say they’ve got cuttings and then bring them and put them on the porch,” she added.
“A lady called about two or three weekends ago and said, ‘I’ve got two 20-gallon plants I don’t want anymore,’” Beltran said. Those big trumpet vines are now in her side yard, awaiting planting. The woman also threw in two hibiscus in need of a home. Another woman called with an ailing tangerine tree and asked if Beltran wanted it. Of course, she said yes.
Her favorite place in a nursery is the corner where the hopeless cases languish, with marked-down prices. She has nursed many a lost cause back to health. She knows each of her plants and refers to many of them as “he” or “she,” with no real explanation.
Every garden reflects the perspective and personality of its creator. Beltran has a mischievous side, and her garden mirrors that, with whimsical elements at every turn in the path or sometimes tucked amid the greenery. Small doll heads are a recurring theme and are embedded throughout, like Easter eggs.
She loves finding a new purpose in the garden for old things; Metal and ironwork are among her favorite items. The fun is both in finding a treasure and in figuring out where to place it.
One of her latest acquisitions is a standing candelabra. When Beltran first tried to put a plant in it, it tipped over, so she made a secure cement base out of a wine barrel ring she found in the street. With some insulation wire she landed from the “free” page, she’s going to weave a basket and fill it with moss and a fern.