Salute to Volunteers

By Rita Pelczar

My new flower bed is something to behold. I take pride in its bold colors and dramatic textures, and graciously accept the compliments from admiring visitors. Little do they know the design was not at all my intent, but rather an accident of nature.

Early last spring I had spent several evenings at my desk setting down the layout of the bed on paper, specifying exact numbers and varieties of the plants I would include. It looked great. Next came the character-building part of the bed preparation -- removing the sod. And because I wanted to raise the soil level, I hauled in wheelbarrow load after load of dark, rich compost. At the time I didn't know just how "rich" it was.

I should say a word here about my compost pile. It's a lazy sort of compost heap -- I've never seen it work up a sweat. I don't turn it, except when I'm ready to use what's on the bottom, and I rarely add the lime or nitrogen that would surely encourage microbial activity, so it takes nearly a year for the contents to break down sufficiently. I'm aware (now more than ever) that the components of my "slow burn" system, from the cantaloupe centers to the frost-nipped Cleome stems, are often laden with the promise -- or threat -- of next year's crop. But I faithfully dump my garden and kitchen remains on the pile and eventually I'm rewarded with that dark, moisture-holding substance to feed to my gardens.

With the new bed prepared and ready for planting, off to the nursery I buzzed. I needed three junipers for the bed's "backbone." These were readily available but it was still too cold for a good selection of perennials. In another three weeks or so, the nurseryman promised, he'd have everything on my list. Meanwhile, I planted the shrubs and temporarily channeled my eagerness back into the design, revising plant selections and fine-tuning their placement. This bed promised to be my masterpiece.

When I got back to work outside a week or so later, I was somewhat surprised at all the activity that had taken place in the bed. As it turns out, my compost that year was unusually well supplied with a variety of seeds -- and they were all germinating. I got down on my hands and knees to pull out these invaders who seemed hell-bent on disrupting my carefully planned design. Then I recognized a young lamb's ear, and another. And I couldn't miss the Johnny-jump-ups. It became a game to try to identify the little sprouts that popped up daily. The weather grew warmer and along came the violets and Cleome in droves, followed by ageratum, coreopsis and portulaca.

Now, I like a good surprise as much as anyone, but this was not at all what I had in mind. I moved countless numbers of these vigorous volunteers to other parts of my yard, but reinforcements kept appearing. I gave them to friends. Finally, I ran out of options, either I had to pull them up or let them be. I went back to the drawing board and reworked my design, accommodating the unplanned arrivals. I hurried to the nursery to buy a couple of "simply must haves" before their space was preempted by another surprise guest. I got them in just in time. Then I threw away the plan.

Today my new garden grows raucously with the kind of unabashed abandon I could never have achieved if I had tried. Seedlings of forget-me-nots have begun to peek out from under the lamb's ears and ageratum, volunteers from the bed on the opposite side of the walk. Though their tiny blue flowers won't appear until next spring, I've decided to let them stay. The garden is much more nature's design than my own, but I'll continue to thank admirers just the same. After all, I did spread the compost.

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