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OVERGROWN – Chronicle of a Reluctant Gardener

Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there.” ~  Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732


“I don’t want a garden, that’s a deal breaker, too much work, too little time”.  He agreed.  We bought a townhouse, we got married.  My husband, envious of my sister’s wonderful tomatoes, faltered first.  We were allowed 3 feet off our back patio to cultivate, and still madly in love, I gave tomatoes a shot for him, though admittedly the sun is never right. Half of my micro plantation distinctly smelled of kerosene, and I had to assume previous occupants dumped unsavory stuff there so I decided to leave the edibles to one half only and let grass and weeds enjoy the remaining land.  But gardens, ironically, are akin to weeds; they creep up on you, when you’re not paying attention. 

I eventually stuck spent house-warming plants in the toxic soil; it became the home of misfit flowers, a recycling effort more than a gardening one.  Anything anyone has ever given me is given a chance for freedom and perennial life in that plot without so much as a thought to Zone or Sun-factor or ultimate array.  As proof of my lackadaisical efforts, I grow more than my fair share of one-leaf/no-bud tulips, though Easter daffodils and hyacinths seem pretty happy. Then I started collecting other people’s rejected flowers, past due bulbs, seemingly dead-on-the-stalk flowers and gave them over to the toxic soil, but only those labelled “perennials”. Every spring is a surprise to me – what made it, what didn’t, and what the heck is that. In fact during super snow-laden winters I throw seeds off the deck for the birds and that has resulted in couple of inadvertent sunflowers. This year’s big surprise – no Asiatic lilies returned, and yet they used to take over the plot.  Instead a couple of presumed dead stargazer lily bulbs erupted to stretch far into the sky and ultimately provide a constellation of plate-sized sweet-scented blooms.

As the dead plant garden blossomed under my minimal care, I considered my disdain for shopping and rationalized investing in my good health on the good soil by shifting to flats of veggies. I over stuffed the tiny space and surreptitiously inched my border out beyond the 3 foot mark – cherry and grape and plum tomatoes, green and hot peppers and many failed cucumbers (although one year I did manage to grow a bright yellow orb on a pickling cucumber vine.) But this year’s cucumbers are last year’s tomatoes, a bumper crop predicted by the flocks of yellow flowers punctuated by spiny caterpillar-sized fruit.  I am fascinated by their curlicue runners that reach out and sense something nearby. (As far as I can make out, the tendrils start out straight and then go “spiral” as they approach a possible connection. They then latch on because of their twirling and never let go, spiralling ever more to secure their position. I have to wonder what sense they use to recognize the pending connection – do they react to the light and shade, the temperature of a nearby object, or am I anthropomorphizing, and it is just happenstance.) Kids pressed sprouted garlic and onions into the ground, and even a few corn kernels though they haven’t been successful beyond a few scraggly leaves. Another sister tucked turnip and beet seeds in my Easter basket; they too went into the ground, though they were harvested prematurely when kids “weeded” for me. I really wanted beets, so it took a considerable effort to hide what a crushing blow it was when no amount of TLC could restore the limp and lifeless plants.

My harsh stand on gardens should not be interpreted to mean that I don’t like flowers and plants; from the beginning, flowers decorated my balcony and my home. Initially my flowers were cut bouquets gathered free from fields of daisies and black-eye-susans, plus a few indigenous plants like wild geranium, and stuff I cannot name.  For fall, I trudged along swamps for cat-o-nine tails and bulrushes brightened with the dreaded invasive and poisonous but never-the-less good-looking and free bittersweet; for winter, evergreen boughs and red berry branches.  No clear decision was ever made; it just somehow happened that cut flowers begat window boxes clinging to the railing with some long-lived ranunculus and pansies from a Wal-Mart sale purchased because company was coming and the balcony needed to look good. Herbs sprout from terra-cotta pots that move indoors in winter because having them as plants is far more convenient and they stay fresher longer, (my chive plant is going on 5 years) and somehow herbs led to a container tomato plant, and then several, then a banana pepper that just kept giving up fruit, and now assorted greens to economically share with our herd of giant house rabbits, and more herbs including three types of mint for my southern visitors’ tea.  Personal favorite mint – Corsican because it just kind of rolls out and takes over everything. What a hoot to watch it over take a golf ball or small box. It is too short stemmed to separate from the soil where it grows, so it’s exclusively ornamental but its value is that it is far more interesting to watch than paint or grass or most TV.

Last year, the home owners’ association commended me on my clearly defined and thriving plants and allowed me to expand again. I’d already added two flower-toting whiskey barrels to the front yard and plugged gifted pansies into the mulch beside the association-provided flowering tree –but now I was getting some serious space – the entire span along the side of our end unit, an area previously reserved for moss, grass and chipmunks.  This 20’x 18” stretch is partially sunned, mostly over sprinkled turf that I first dotted with marigolds seeds from a healthy alternative Easter basket coupled with a seed pack I found sporting tread marks in the middle of a nearby street.  They thrived, and, I am learning, self seeded. Last fall I received a can of wildflower seeds from a colleague, and this spring liberally sprinkled them; this year I also dug up and shifted unhappy plants from the perennial plot and a couple of Christmas  Amaryllis I forgot to grow indoors, plus two potted mums that wintered over, and a pre-surgery gift of coreopsis (sp?) and one of lupine.  So imagine my surprise when the plants I visit every morning presented something strangely familiar to me today. I think my sun-less side garden has a flowerless tomato growing that I did not plant. Was a tomato seed in the wild flower mix, did the fact that I save and reuse dirt from my balcony plants, give a tomato seed a chance to sprout, is it just some tomato look-alike? I don’t know; I know so very little about plants, because you know, as I’ve stated all along, I am not a gardener.

But my neighbor…last year I gave him a potted tomato plant and he was hugely successful with it. Now he talks enthusiastically about expanding his crop. And this leads me to believe that while the plants they grow (with the exception of mint) are not invasive,  the gardeners might be. 

 ©2012 by Alison B. Colby-Campbell

5 thoughts on “OVERGROWN – Chronicle of a Reluctant Gardener”

  1. This is one of my most favorite of all your blogs! LOVE the story, voice, and theme.
    Question: When you “plant” seed strips or wildflower seeds from a bucket, do you till the soil, or just drop them amongst whatever’s there?


  2. Betty so glad you liked it. I started to write about John Isner the tennis guy I saw play in WTT on Monday who is headed to the Olympics..and somehow this just came out.
    I did till the soil but you’re only supposed to cover the seeds with like a half inch of soil. Don’t have the can anymore so cannot specifically remember.
    With the wildflower seeds, you really have to not care…They come up looking like an inconsistent tangled mess and then you start to recognize flowers. I had one tiny lupine a few red clover but am most enchanted by the colors of dozens of flopping over bachelor buttons….The blues are so vivid I can’t capture them on camera, then there are pink, purple and white. Those things are very happy and I share their enthusiasm.


  3. BTW Felder Rushing if you read this please note that I retrieved a cobalt wine bottle from the recycling bin the other day and it keeps edging closer to my toxic perennial garden….guess bottle gardens creep up on you , too.


  4. In my Internet investigations, I did not find too many mentions of the cabbage worm attacking other plants besides the brassicas, but in my garden I find them on tomatoes, eggplant, and beans. Perhaps the harsh desert environment we live in makes them extra opportunistic. One plant I did not comb through was a large, robust tomatillo. For some misguided reason I thought it would not be affected. I noticed a bunch of yellow dieing leaves which should have clued me in, but it didn’t. Then one day, at eye level, attached to a gnawed off branch end I sighted the hideous monster. I had found what I thought was the uberman of Cabbage worm caterpillars. It was about 4.5 inches long and an inch wide. It had what looked like painted on decorations and a horn. It was a horrifying shock to see this creepy creature. I broke off the branch it was on, took it out of the greenhouse and smashed it with a rock. Dark green protoplasm, that was once my tomatillo plant, spurted all over the place. Luckily it missed me and I avoided a major gross-out event. I found 2 others on that plant, they weren’t quite as big but the plant was weakened and spider mites got a foothold on it too. The plant didn’t die but it is sickly and I’ll get a fraction of the fruit I would normally.


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