Up On The Roof

By Louise Ure

Six years ago, I found a young man with a strong back and a weak mind. A man willing to create a landscaped roofdeck for me, hauling all the supplies three stories up a spiral staircase, for only $20 an hour.

Ten-foot planks of redwood.

Four trough-like redwood planters.

Over a hundred terra cotta pots, many as tall as your hip.

Hundreds and hundreds of pounds of potting soil and gravel and bark chips.

At least two hundred plants, including five trees more than eight feet tall.

I called in an architect and a roofer to meet with this sweet, witless boy to confirm the safest placement of the largest items. I’ll bet he never bids a job like that again.

My only caveat to this well-muscled landscaper was that I wanted nothing that the California Highway Department couldn’t grow in the medians. I know my shortcomings. I grew up in Arizona, where vegetation didn’t have to be green to prove it was alive.


He planted Mexican Feather Grass and Sea Lavender.

Clematis. Bougainvillea. Cordyline and Passion Flower.


Star Jasmine, Rhododendron and Sage.

Cotoneaster and Marguerites. Yucca and agave and aloe.


The result was stunning. Windbreaks to the east and west. A hundred and eighty degree view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. A seventy-five by twenty-five patch of paradise.

I love my time up there, in both fair weather and fog.



But now, six years later, the garden has gone wild. The bear grass is big enough to hide a bear. Adult. Male. The jasmine has metastasized and is threatening to eat the neighbor’s house. The yucca has grown to more than twelve feet and has become its own recognizable landmark on the San Francisco skyline.

I made the mistake of creating the garden I wanted, not the garden it would grow up to be. Something must be done.


For the last month I’ve dedicated forty-five minutes a day to getting the deck in shape. Pruning, trimming, cleaning, feeding.

But only one pot per day.

Like the painting schedule on the Golden Gate Bridge, when I finish the last pot, it will be time to start all over again.

And I’ve discovered that it’s a lot like the way I revise my work.

Certainly there’s the cleaning: getting rid of the typos and crappy grammar and lame analogies. There’s also pruning and trimming: tightening the sentence structure, losing irrelevant characters, and rewriting scenes to move the action forward. There’s feeding, too: it’s only the third or fourth draft before the words begin to sing and I can see on the page the author voice I heard only in my head.

There’s also rearranging. Upstairs, I’m reconfiguring the watering system and placing pots in new, more advantageous positions. I come downstairs and do the same thing with whole chapters.

And replanting: I’ll bring in two dozen new plants by the time I’m done, and I’ll bet I can say the same about new scenes and plot elements in my work.


I’m on one single schedule now. By the time the last pot is done, the next book will also be pruned, trimmed, cleaned and watered. And it will be time to start again.

With each book, I forget how many thousands and thousands of decisions I made to create the whole story. A character’s mannerism. The color of a car. The description of a breeze. An unexpected plot twist. Why do I continue to think that I have to create the garden-that-will-be all at once? When will I realize that the garden continues to grow, and not demand instant perfection?

I tamed the feather grass today. Tomorrow the yucca. And Chapter Fifteen.


Fellow writers, how do your gardens grow? Is your first draft just a sketch of where to put the plants? Or do you, like me, hope for perfection from that first seed?

And here’s a happy unveiling: the final cover for the new book, The Fault Tree, coming January 8, 2008, from St. Martin’s Press. Didn’t they do a fine job?



26 thoughts on “Up On The Roof

  1. Sheila Connolly

    I lived for a decade or so on the other side of the Bay (if I stood on my roof, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge). I had six-foot jade plants, and I had to take a machete to the geraniums to keep them under control. But I do miss the jasmine–it smelled wonderful. It’s too fragile for New England.

    Loved Forcing Amaryllis!

  2. pari

    Gorgeous cover, Louise!

    Gorgeous garden! Wow. What beautiful images to start the day.

    As to your question, I want every word to be perfect in the first draft. However, it’s usually just a flimsy skeleton with too much Spanish moss and other detritus.

    It’s only through the yardwork, the taming — the pruning and adding, the slashing and building — that I finally end up with a true book.

  3. Louise Ure

    Hi Billie and Rae (I’m waiting for a Cyrus there to complete the country & western trilogy).

    Glad you like the new cover. I was so wild about it that I redesigned my whole web site around it.

  4. Louise Ure

    Sheila, I can picture those jade plants. But if you can’t grow jasmine in New England, what do you plant to attract hummingbirds?

    And Pari, I love the Spanish moss notion. I think that’s what I’m going to call my first drafts from now on.

  5. Elaine Flinn

    Stupendous view (I hate you everytime I think about it) – Stupendous book cover (surefire lure!) – and a stupendous writer (were I as accomplished).

    Looks like a Trifecta to me.

  6. Gillian Roberts

    Gorgeous garden and book cover–and book, Louise!Maybe that first draft is planting the seeds–including, too often for me, the seeds of weeds…but I so wish I could find the writing equivalent of your slave–excuse me, I mean workman–who dragged and hauled and schlepped all the necessary elements into place.

  7. Elaine Flinn

    Oh, right…your question. How does my garden grow? First I consider my perenninals, then add colorful annuals, arrange my herbs for seasoning and flavor, set up a drip system, plant with love and care and then fertilize. Weeding and pruning for shape as needed.

    And then I hope the mix and the view will be pleasing enough to want to linger a spell…

  8. Louise Ure

    Elaine, I’ve seen your garden. Lush, green, well-paved with old bricks. Dare I call it cozy? And your planting system is perfect for a person writing a serial. Your perrenials are your main characters, yes? Your annuals, the ancillary ones who fill their lives. And the spice and herb mixture? There’s your magic.

  9. Louise Ure

    Oh yeah, Gillian, to find that hunky muse who doesn’t mind manual labor and can tell the difference between a literary peony and a weed. Dream on.

    JT, we’ve got to plan a Murderati reunion in SF some day. Drinks on the deck at 5:00!

  10. Sharon Wheeler

    That cover is gorgeous — one of the nicest I’ve seen! And Louise, I want your garden. The fact I can’t maintain one is neither here nor there. People who know me think it’s hilarious that I bought a house with a big garden. it now resembles a jungle. There be dragons :o)

  11. Dave Arnold

    Don’t you live next door to me? Why can’t that concept osmotically transfer through the wall? If you have drinks on the deck at 5:00 you damn well better invite the neighbors!

  12. Louise Ure

    David! How nice to see you here!

    But … drinks on the deck tonight? Look out the window, sweet boy. It’s pea soup fog out there and the foghorns are sounding symphonic!

  13. Tom

    Wait a minute, Louise – you get that view, your garden, your book cover, AND pea soup fog and symphonic fog horns, and San Francisco? What kind of bribes does God take, exactly?

  14. Karen Olson

    I’m a little late to the party because I’ve been traveling, but I LOVE the new cover,the book is fabulous, and the garden, well, with that view, anything would look great!!


Leave a Reply to Elaine Flinn Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *