A garden gone wild

Betty Jakum
Adams County Master Gardener

An automobile accident in mid March caused major trauma to my neck, chest and legs and, to say the least, put a serious damper on any plans for this year’s gardening season. These many months later, I am still unable to bend and kneel easily or do many of the things necessary to keep a garden going during the growing season.

At first, I looked glumly toward a summer without the beauty and comfort of watching things grow in the garden. Even though my husband gave what time he could, there would be no day-long trips to nurseries to find new varieties and old favorites of flowers and vegetables, there would be no crisp, weed-free borders in the flower beds, there would be no well-tended tomatoes or crowded rows of slender green beans. Truth be known, I wasn’t sure just what there’d be. All I knew was that I was in no shape to make any meaningful difference about it anyway.

Like a parent letting a child do for itself for the first time, I sat back (or more appropriately laid back) and watched with much apprehension to see what the garden would do. To my delight, there developed a garden as diverse and surprisingly beautiful as any I ever planned. Maybe not the garden I would have purposely designed and surely wilder and more haphazard than in previous years, it nevertheless has a specialness that makes it truly memorable.

No doubt a large measure of thanks goes to the good graces of Mother Nature in supplying us with barrels of rain this year that kept everything growing profusely. As a result, the perennials had no trouble growing quickly and abundantly and oftentimes smothering or, at least, hiding the weeds that grew right alongside of them. The rain also provided ideal growing conditions for plant volunteers that came from hardy varieties that successfully over wintered and from wild plants in the surrounding fields that found a place to grow in the untended gardens.

Nodding heads of cleome, not seen since their original planting five years earlier, appeared in the garden once again, blooming profusely without the competition from the more practical vegetables usually planted there. There was one enormous, towering sunflower proudly displaying over 50 shining seed heads. Had this been a normal gardening season, it would have been weeded out as a tiny seedling, misplaced in an area usually reserved for cabbages. Where it came from, I am not sure; but many afternoons it was a moving image of vivid yellow flashes as the goldfinches visited for their midday snacks.

The flower bed at the end of the driveway is usually home to some carefully-tended daylilies. This year they had to share their space with some errant dill plants and a dozen or so opportunistic milkweed. The latter more than paid for the real estate provided for them by filling the air with their intoxicating scent and attracting beautiful butterflies. The dill heads bobbed and weaved in the slightest breeze; and, when needed, added their unique flavor to this summer’s cucumber and potato salads.

A sheltered nook between a rose bush and an abelia bush next to the sidewalk became a wonderful miniature garden of portulaca and petunias that had managed to overwinter in this protected spot. Had I been my normal hundred percent, the area would have been neatly weed and mulched, and I would have wiped out this tiny piece of nature’s own design.

And there were other surprises as well: a white nicotiana appeared at the edge of an herb patch as did a clump of bronze fennel from who knows where. Even a grape tomato seedling managed to make it through last winter, coming along late in the season but still in enough time to produce plenty of small delicious fruit for summer salads. Several cantaloupes ripened on a vine that grew at the base of the compost pile.

Mirabel Osler in her great gardening book, "A Gentle Plea for Chaos," echoes her appreciation for this kind of gardening serendipity when she writes: "Random seeding can sometimes be a godsend. What gardener doesn’t make a mental genuflection on discovering a self-sown group of violas by the doorstep, or on finding a spire of deep blue Jacob’s ladder under the blackish-crimson blooms of a rose?" I couldn’t agree more; and I hope in years to come, even when I can, I won’t weed everything clean or arrange the garden just the way I want it. There’s too much joy to be found in a garden gone wild!

Read other articles on ecological gardening & native plants

Read other articles by Betty Jakum