Exceeding Expectations

In a garden, as in life, we think we like predictability.

The sun will rise in the east in the morning and set in the west after making its daily arc across the sky. In summer, it will take its sweet time on that trip. Where you have planted bean seeds, it will not come up as okra or asparagus. If you apply dark rich compost at the right time and right place, your garden will be more fruitful. If you pull the weeds, the plants you want will have a better chance. The sun is a given, naturally, but the others depend on our efforts. Efforts that often yield wonderful rewards.

But other natural forces are not givens, and sometimes things happen that foil our efforts. The state of the weather notoriously preoccupies farmers and gardeners. A couple weeks ago I watched my farming neighbor cutting his hay and leaving it to dry where it fell. He came back a day or two later to do the baling and get it into the barn. If rain had fallen in the meantime, it would have washed out time, effort, and money.

If rain doesn’t fall for a long spell, especially during a heat wave, the farm’s other plantings need irrigation. I can gauge when it’s high time to water my garden by when its sprinkler system starts spraying across the rows. In the drought of 2016, when the town declared a watering ban, the farm could draw on its own pond for irrigation.

Irrigation sprinklers at work behind trees and shrubs in foreground; green hills visible in background

I, however, had to haul buckets of household water from washings and rinsings out to the plants that needed it most. Some of them nonetheless died, and the middle-aged birch and the gigantic grandma sugar maple on my lot have never quite recovered from that season of stress.

Charms of the unexpected

And yet, the unexpected in the garden can bring zings of delight. I’ve been savoring many of those. The weather brings some, as when the spring weather came in early March this year and the crocuses and daffodils and grape hyacinths billowed forth a month before I’d anticipated.

Tiny mushrooms with pale stalks and dark grey heads, growing profusely on top of strawSome garden surprises reward without direct effort. I get enchanting side benefits to watering, for example, as when my gaze lazies across the raised bed while I spray-bathe the young onions and my sight is snagged by a legion of tiny mushrooms that sprouted overnight from the straw mulch. Ephemerals that keel over as soon as the sun hits them.

Two stalks of yellow foxtail lilies in bloom against a white clapboard background; spiky green foliage spreads far below where the flower heads beginWhat else have I missed?

I nearly missed the eruption of two 5′ stalks brandishing giant bottle brushes made up of hundreds of small saffron flowers. I must have planted them, but can’t remember when. The yellow blast whacked me when I turned the corner of the house. They’d materialized while I neglected even to look at, much less weed, that particular bed for far too long. The thrill of seeing those fully grown, a reward for virtue postponed. But what if I’d delayed longer?

Now that I’ve figured out what they’re called (Eremurus bungeinickname: foxtail lily) I’m already wondering what to plant to keep them company.

There are sur-prizes for timelier work. When I inch through the shrubs-and-trees bed uprooting invaders, I encounter another party crasher. A welcome one: a profusely blue-blossomed cornflower plant that somehow burst forth where no cornflower had gone before. Is it cheating if I count the garlic scapes that  emerged seemingly overnight and corkscrewed their ways around their parent stalks and each other? If I hadn’t wondered whether it was time to water the garlic again, I might never have noticed (or harvested) them.

Life’s little lagniappes

Closeup of garlic scapes (capped by swellings tapering into sharp tips) wound around each other and the garlic plants' stalks and leaves; straw mulch visible in background.

Garlic scapes in action

Don’t get me wrong. I have not turned into Petunia Pollyanna. I still worry about the bunnies and Tamerlane the Woodchuck eating that which should not be eaten (except by me, or in the case of the geraniums, at all). The growing paper-wasp nests that I find moored on the underside of the deck umbrella make me fret; I know I have to do something about those some cool early morning. And I keep finding weeds growing in the darnedest places.

Still, the garden delivers delightful daily reminders that I am not running a machine that processes inputs in some predetermined unerring way and spits out the exact predictable product. I think of the scientific discoveries that happened because somebody noticed something important when things didn’t go as expected. From one perspective, some mold messed up the staphylococcus culture Alexander Fleming had going at St. Mary’s Hospital. It could have been a botched experiment, but it turned out to give us penicillin.

Not that I’m equating cornflowers with the penicillium mold.

Blue-green Penicillium notatum mold growing in dark red beet juice, seen from above

Penicillium notatum mold
“Penicillium notatum on beetroot vinegar. June 1965” by Mary Gillham Archive Project; licensed under CC BY 2.0

violet-blue cornflowers seen from above, against a mass of chartreuse-green foliage


I think of them more as something like the “comp” your friend the chef may have delivered to your table as a freebie in the middle of the meal you ordered, back before the Covid-19 surprise.

Surprise, surprise

For the people who keep coming up with new varieties of vegetables and flowers, some garden surprises may just be a penicillium equivalent. Unexpected hybridizations. Small sports on parent plants, brandishing a novel color or shape of leaf, a multi-hued or double-petaled flower while their siblings keep to the original monotone and single-petal theme. Dwarfs parented by giants. Prostrate forms abandoning their upright origins.

closeup of a bloom of Peony 'Charles Burgess,' a deep red-petaled flower with luscious center filled with gold-tipped red staminoides

Well, wouldn’t you love to come back as this?

It makes me hanker for reincarnation as a plant breeder. Unless I could come back as a Paeonia lactiflora ‘Charles Burgess’—which would be quite some surprise.

For now, though, as the days and years tick past, I’m finding that my body does for me what the garden often does and computer technology used to do: every time something goes wrong, I learn something new. One major learning opportunity came on the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

How I spent my holiday weekend

Rain was predicted, so no gardening. Instead, I planned to escape for a couple of days in the Big City. (Well, Boston. It’s the biggest we have in Massachusetts.) I went to sleep Friday night thinking of what I still needed to pack, and was rudely awakened in the wee hours by turmoil in the intestinal tract, which turned into bleeding. So my Saturday went into several hours in an emergency room, transitioned into an overnight hospital stay, and seguéd on Sunday into an unscheduled medical “procedure” (the kind I usually refer to as roto-rooting).

A bit scary, yes, but I learned a lot about intestines. I will spare you the details, except that I finally found out the meaning of the word ischemic. (P.S. I’m fine now, am leading a more virtuous culinary life, and may never endure such an episode again.) I’m still waiting to open the bill from the gastroenterologist to learn how much this particular learning experience cost. My guess is, more than a new shrub. More than a big new shrub.

But the great lesson from this episode is that I found out how wonderful my friends are. L, who lives nearby, dropped everything in the middle of a creative flow to drive me across the river to the emergency room. M, who has an M.D., coached me through understanding what was going on, came to see me after the procedure and whisked me away to stay with her family so they could keep an eye on me—which they did, most sweetly. Another M ran over there the next morning to visit and dispense additional cheer. S drove half an hour up to pick me up and another hour to get me home.

Home again, home again

When I arrived home I also found myself in possession of two massive containers: one of homemade chicken soup, the other of homemade harira. Both delicious, and relieving me for days of any need to cook. Numerous friends and my two sisters who knew the situation called and texted all that week to see how I was doing and ask whether I needed anything. What a gift!

I’m sending love and heartfelt thanks to you all. If pictures count, I’m saying it with flowers.

A swathe of spring flowers: purple Siberian irises in foreground, with a few taller light bearded irises and bright crimson poppies in background

Saying it with flowers: thank you, dear friends!

Speaking of flowers, and for that matter, of trees and shrubs and veggies and grasses and fruits: this year they feel so intensely like ongoing gifts. Like I’ve had a mental cataract operation and now see more intense colors with sparkling clarity. Did it take a pandemic to remind me how beautiful life is?

at lower right, a tiny light lime-green grasshopper crawling on brown bark mulch next to tiny dicot seedling the same color as the insect; bottom of bright fuchsia tube at upper left, and at upper right and very bottom of the photo some pieces of landscaping cloth are visible

What does the grasshopper do?

Whatever troubles might be going on in my own tiny world, nature is out there ready to heal. And by “nature,” I mean the plants and all their friends. The blazing-ruby-throated hummingbird I spotted last night humming through a row of nearly spent flowers. The earthworms that squirm towards cover when I pull a weed from over their heads (do they have heads? Must look it up!). The underground fungal networks that help feed the trees. Invisible microbes that break down the mulch into something edible-for-plants. Even the tiny lime-green grasshopper, less than an inch long, scuttling away from my digging knife’s path. I have no idea what help a grasshopper gives, but this one sure looked willing.

It takes a village. All, salutary reminders that I am not growing these plants. They’re growing with lots of help from their friends. I’m only one friend among many. It’s a lovely club to join.

And now, your turn:

Remember to sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts, if you haven’t already done so. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but please feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What do grasshoppers do?
  2. What’s the best surprise you’ve had lately in the garden? (Indoor gardens count too!)
  3. What lovely lesson have you learned from some mishap, in garden or out?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Remember I’m running a contest for 2021: the reader who sends me (kateriffoley at gmail dot com) the weirdest garden-related snippet of news or information between now and December 31, 2021, will win some kind of cool prize. Might be a hori hori: might be a gorgeous gardening book. I promise it won’t be a woodchuck. I’ll offer a few choices when the time comes. So please, keep your antennae up for choice tidbits, and send them on!


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10 Responses to Exceeding Expectations

  1. Emily Lackey says:

    So glad you are feeling better, Kate! Don’t forget the other “Em” in your life is home if you ever need anything in the future.

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks, Em! Let’s hope I won’t have to call on anyone for that kind of help any time again soon. I’d much rather call on my friends to come over to hang out on the deck and watch the flora and fauna do their thing.

  2. Leslie Swartz says:

    Wonderful! Your endeavors – both the gardening and the writing, with all that each entails- are truly inspiring. I am thinking of rearranging all my beds now that I understand what varieties the critters will not eat. Sounds like a good thing to dream about during my afternoon nap. All the best. LS

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks, Leslie! Hope you don’t try rearranging all the beds at once. Experimentation might be the best bet (and possibly more fun, or at least less exhausting).

      I’ve noticed (maybe because I’ve been paying more attention) that very few nurseries now claim that any plant is X-proof. It may be deer resistant or rabbit resistant, that “resistant” being a major wiggle word. Does it mean the plant will fight back but might still lose? And every plant seems to have its own special pest. I was delighted to learn that rabbits and even (maybe, sometimes) woodchucks will steer clear of anything in the onion family. Then I found out that onion maggots love to feast on the whole range of alliums: onions, garlic, chives, and possibly even the giant allium people grow for the flower effect. Sigh. Then I read that marigolds planted next to alliums can mask the allium scent and foil the onion fly. Then I read that there’s often a risk that such companion plants will overwhelm the plant you want them to protect.

      So far, my strategy for foiling woodchuck damage in the veggie garden has been to delay planting anything but garlic and onions. Had I heard about onion maggots before I put those in, they might never have made it into the beds.

  3. Marya says:

    Love this! What do grasshoppers do? Well, they sure make a lot of noise. Or is that crickets, and is there a difference? Actually, it’s both, they both, repeat after me, S-T-R-I-D-U-L-A-T-E, though apparently the mechanisms are slightly different, though both involve rubbing of the legs.

    Here is what I’ve been thinking about: Chimera. It’s supposed to be this fierce monster, but isn’t it just a cross, or a hybridization, as you say? (And of course, she was female. Aren’t females so scary???) I guess, like everything in this world, there are good ones and bad ones. Hmm.

    Your hybridization of gardening with writing? Good 😉

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks, Marya, for the lovely compliment. Let’s hope the blog, while a hybrid of sorts, doesn’t prove too chimerical.

      And thanks for the note on stridulation. You’ve given me exactly the right word to describe what happens when I walk fast while wearing corduroy slacks.

      At one with the crickets and grasshoppers…

  4. Hillary says:

    Wow: two things I didn’t know:
    1) That you landed in the hospital with gastrointestinal bleeding. Very happy to know you are OK now;
    2) A brief history of the word “lagniappe” because your use of it caused my curiosity on its origin to pop up. Mark Twain apparently loved the word and the custom!

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks for that note, Hillary! I learned something from you, too. Wonder whether Mark Twain should get credit for popularizing use of the word lagniappe. I think I’ll go back to my post and insert a link to the Merriam-Webster page for the term.
      P.S. I’m very happy that I’m okay now, too. Nothing like a little medical emergency to put things into perspective, but once they’re in perspective, enough, I say!

  5. Teague says:

    You bring “zings of delight”!!! or da light. you know. we planted a purple coneflower last year but it was n a spot where critters kept nibbling it down so it never hatched out. this year i got fed up and surrounded it by weaving a bunch of desert bones around it and now it’s hatching out so beautifully. it may very well rival a hatching sunflower in regard to the geometric perfections vis a vis Fibonacci.

    • Kateri says:

      Sounds like I could make good use of a lot of desert bones, Teague! If the heat waves keep up, we may end up with them here too.

      The coneflowers are fun to watch as they unfold. I leave the seed heads there for the birds, although I suspect the squirrels may be nabbing a lot of them.

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