A wild, unruly garden - a life, and memories, in living color

Plants given to a gardener are a reminder: Sometimes the most beautiful things are unplanned.
Plants given to a gardener are a reminder: Sometimes the most beautiful things are unplanned. (STACEY BURLING / Staff)
Posted: August 17, 2013

I had given up on the lily my husband's Uncle James in Maine sent me two years ago, so I was surprised to see a mysterious lily in my garden this summer, budded and full of promise.

No doubt James had meant his gift as a remembrance of Jeff, who had died the year before. But as the plant prepared to bloom this summer, it was also a reminder that you never know when kindness will pay off, that sometimes the most beautiful things are unplanned.

As I grow older, my garden seems to hold more plants like this. They are not just my hobby anymore, but bittersweet symbols of people and places that helped me grow, gifts of exquisite color and shape that other people discovered before I did and were kind enough to share.

When I was a child, I planted zinnia seeds in straight Midwestern rows on the edges of my parents' rectangular plots of vegetables. The sprouts were no more than future summer bouquets to me.

Now, I live outside Philadelphia with easy access to some of the nation's great public gardens, and my horticultural aspirations have grown. My curving plots are packed with plants I'd never seen as girl. I think of them as art in space and time, but I have a weakness for volunteers, which I let grow in the cracks of the sidewalk and allow to mar my color schemes. I'll never be part of a garden tour. For me, anyway, it has been important to stop trying to make things grow a certain way and start enjoying what happens when I let them grow.

Next to the lily is a cleome, a spidery purple flower that my late father-in-law introduced me to. Each year, there are thousands of seedlings, and each year, I let one or two live in his honor. The dragon-wing begonias that guard my door come courtesy of my friend Lynn, who grows them at her house near Chicago. Andy introduced me to the caladiums that look so beautiful next to the begonias. Barb gave me the gorgeous perennial orchids and Japanese irises, and Carol gave me the fragrant daffodils. My brother gathered the seeds for my sweet peas at a roadside near his home in Alabama. My mother sent seeds for pink salvia plants that sprout late and make me rearrange things every summer. She also introduced me to two of my favorites, star zinnias and Mexican sage. The sweet williams remind me of the way my father, who was usually known as Bill, signed cards to my mother - before the divorce. My stepmother inspires me to keep trying geraniums every year, though the ones on her patio in Indiana always look better.

The year my husband and father-in-law died, my mother-in-law planted two rose bushes in Raleigh. I planted two in my garden, too, and a third for my father.

My hibiscus was a gift from my neighbor Polly when she and Jack moved to independent living. The deck, with its collection of mismatched pots, makes me think of my late friend Fawn, whose cluttered, unpretentious deck somehow managed to be as graceful and welcoming as she was.

The basil plants take me back to Norfolk, Va., where I lived when the New York Times International Cookbook helped me discover pesto long before it was on every restaurant menu. My mint, safely encased in a pot, reminds me of the herb I battled at our house in Denver, where a previous owner had foolishly let it and its devious, guerrilla runners free in the garden.

Then there's the pot with the cactus my husband bought to decorate his office. It is a spiky, vicious-looking thing, and I have always hated it. I vowed to stop taking care of it last year, but it is alive and well. I cannot bring myself to kill it. Meanwhile, the two much-prettier cactus plants my brother bought for my sons the week their father died look terrible in our humid climate. I can't bear to throw them out, either.

The heliotrope and hyssop, the coneflowers and black and blue salvia, the bee balm and lavender are all mine. Lest I get too set in my ways, I always try something new. This year's experiments are bougainvillea and lion's ear. Someday, I may make room for a grandchild's sunflower or marigold.

On a late June afternoon, I caught myself thinking that this garden, at its peak, was me - the wild, unruly part of me that likes a little disarray, that has trouble making decisions, that loves purple. But, as I thought some more, I realized the garden was not just me, but my life, my memories, in living color.

The lily finally bloomed weeks later, on the day my older son left for two years in Africa with the Peace Corps, an event that Uncle James could not have foreseen. Its petals had white edges and triangles of pale green rimmed with magenta in the center. I might not have chosen it myself, but it looked right at home.

Contact Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

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