Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Valiant Volunteers September 19, 2008

Cynthia of the wonderful blog Brambleberries in the Rain had a very thought-provoking post yesterday about allowing volunteer plants into the garden and the sometimes pleasing, sometimes frightening consequences that can ensue. It got me thinking about my own faithful garden volunteers.

Since my parking strip garden started from nothing (after we ripped out all the St. John’s wort, it was a blank slate), and my budget for replacement plants was small, I have relied a lot on volunteer re-seeders from my first year’s plantings. And some stuff just wanders in from the neighborhood via bird or wind distribution and I have to decide what stays and what goes.

Being fairly faint-of-heart when it comes to plant removal (Instead of “Hey little guy, you chose to sprout in my garden? That’s great. Now die!!!” I’m more likely to just let it stay and see how it grows.), I of course end up with a fairly random selection and a bit too much of some stuff. I am trying to learn to be more ruthless, and maybe next spring I will also recognize more of the “babies” as they emerge and can decide whether to edit (i.e. eliminate), transplant, or let them stay.

My parking strip garden as of 9/16

This summer, I didn’t spend very much time in the garden. Between taking care of my daughter, having the cold from hell, going on a few vacations, and generally succumbing to massive laziness in the few hours that could have been used for chores indoors and out, I just pretty much let things be. So, the volunteers were my heroes – they did their work (growing with no help!) while I neglected mine. For that, I am grateful. Below are some of my favorites.

Sweet alyssum sometimes overwinters in my garden (Zone 8), sometimes not. But it usually leaves some seeds in the ground that sprout the following year. It doesn’t take over much space, its clusters of tiny white flowers smell delicious, and it’s one of the lower-growers that keep the weeds down a bit.

Sweet alyssum

Calendula officinalis, or pot marigold, seeds itself annually in my garden too. I usually have to pull a few out, since it tends to like to sprout right where I’m planning to plant my beans or parsley. Its flowers are so cheery, and I love their silky texture. The petals are edible and make a bright addition to salads. They do need fairly frequent dead-heading to stay nice-looking, and are also susceptible to mildew late in the season, as you can see from this photo.


Cerinthe major purpurascens, aka Blue Shrimp Plant, has always been a favorite of mine since I first saw it growing in a street garden a few years ago. Its gently arching stems produce a purply-blue flower that does indeed look a bit like a shrimp (its other common name is honeywort). In my garden, it sows itself liberally and sprouts in spring and again in late summer. No flower on this one yet, but click here to see what it ends up looking like.

Volunteer cerinthe

Hm, this is turning into a pretty long post (for me). I might have to think about doing a Part II. I’ll close this chapter with one of my favorite volunteers, Bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), aka cornflower. The first year these started appearing in my garden, I pulled them up by the bucket-full, thinking they were a weed. They’re a bit on the tall side, so they don’t work as well at the edge of the border, but I usually leave a lot in, because they come up early in the spring and then again in the late summer. Most are blue, but there’s the occasional pink or white one that appears. How can I resist? Plus, the bees dig them, as evidenced below.

Bee in Bachelor's button

Do you have any garden volunteers whom you welcome in every year? Are there others you wish would pass on by?


Seed Snarfer August 31, 2008

My family looked out the window this morning and saw something pretty funny. A big, fat squirrel, perched precariously on top of one of my parking strip sunflowers, was scarfing down all the seeds s/he could reach. I had noticed yesterday that some of the flowers were leaning over and thought it was due to a windy day we had earlier in the week. Guess it was the squirrel’s climbing expeditions instead.

Sunflower Squirrel

One of the stems had snapped off halfway down, so I hacked it off and brought it up to our house level so that we could watch the fun from a closer vantage point. The squirrel soon reappeared and ate the entire huge head of seeds. “It’s like it’s a big feast!” was my daughter’s comment. Guess fall must really be here.

Squirrel Things Sunflower Seeds Are Yummy