I am easily intimidated by gardening books. Particularly ones with pictures of brilliant fragrant borders designed to attract hummingbirds, no less. No matter what I do, I know that my garden will never be picture perfect. By the time I remember to prune, mulch or subdivide, some other pressing need will emerge, unannounced, to interfere with my best intentioned plan.
In a matter of minutes, a well-placed comfrey can obliterate the penstemon, or else the poor potted fuschia begins to die a slow death, having missed the nourishing rainfall by mere inches. Garden lists are created to give us a needed sense of structure and purpose but every garden bed is in its own time zone, and the best landscaping decisions can be upstaged by nature’s inevitable plan.
My garden began as a jungle of blackberry vines, bamboo, a nameless, spineless vine that makes blackberries appear almost friendly, and thick undergrowth of broken brick and glass shard mulch. Some thirty years of clearing, digging and planting later, I have a decent approximation of a garden thanks to perseverance, and the luck of fabulous natural soil that washes down from the Oakland hills. It is difficult, even for the likes of me, not to achieve at least partial success simply by allowing birds, winds and the neighbor’s invasive offshoots to provide a rich variety of landscape materials. Having spent countless dollars purchasing unusual hybrids from exotic specialty nurseries, resorting to basic flats of common annuals, and even taking chances with imported seed and bulb catalogues, I have discovered that the most interesting landscapes turn out to be those designed by mysterious sources.
Take borage, for example. Borage is a beautiful plant, furry grey-green leaves, bluebell flowers that flourish for the better part of two seasons, and self-sowing, to say the least. Throughout the spring and summer months, borage displays long, billowing shoots of delicious blue flowers that are not only great in salads, but offer medicinal value as a diuretic, demulcent and anti-depressant. A great plant, you would think, until the leaves begin to sprout invisible but painful stickers, growing leggy and flattening all plants in its path. In a glade of wildflowers, borage must truly be magnificent. But in a basic urban backyard, it borders on ferocious. It took me years to finally recognize the dainty juvenile seedlings and snatch them out before they obliterated the walkways.
Then I noticed the iris bed. An errant flock of borage seeds must have nestled between the stalks of iris, escaping my well trained eye. Without warning, a brilliant waterfall of bluebell flowers sprayed open amidst the yellow iris spikes. It was a Monet moment–lavish interlacing of bright yellow and blue that lasted for several weeks.
And that is how it is with gardening. Just when you think you have made a decision for or against the usefulness of a particular plant, just when you start to consider yourself somewhat of an expert, you will find yourself mistaken. Perhaps as a form of self-defense, I have come to equate successful gardens not with picture perfect bursts of floral symmetry, but with gardens that provide inspiration, humor, and continuous surprise.