Occasional essays by Christa Watters
A Venture in Guerrilla Gardening — When Luck and Patience Pay Off
Not all gardeners have big plots. So sometimes we just exploit what’s nearby. It’s a bit iffy, but taking a little risk and adding a dollop of luck and patience, some digging and weeding and a mix of bought and donated plants can pay off. Witness the former parking lot island near my town house. It used to be a dog- and sun-seared plot of weedy grass that never looked good after the first green flush of spring. Then last fall the landscapers cut off all the sod, put down a thin layer of mulch, and inserted a straggly border of variegated Liriope muscara next to the cement edges. In the center of this small plot stands a small Japanese Cherry tree bought from the City’s tree sale for $29.95 a few years ago. With some start-up watering, the wee sapling thrived in the spot where a big redbud had fallen during a heavy snow the winter before. For years, I’d hoped the homeowners association would see fit to make that barren little space into a garden. Now, disappointed with their unimaginative solution, I decided on the do-it-yourself approach.
I asked the landscaping committee for permission to plant some bulbs for spring color. They readily agreed. In went tulips, daffodils and a cluster of allium bulbs to disguise the base of a light pole. I’d have added more, but the soil was the particular regional mix we all love so much – yellow Virginia clay generously salted with sizable stones, small pebbles, and contractor’s debris that had been compacting for thirty years – brick and concrete chunks, a soda can, bits of wire. I harvested three small buckets of stones, mixed in some better soil and mulch, and dug in as many bulbs as the strength of my hands permitted. Then winter came – time for patience.
The bulbs provided a cheerful beginning in spring. As the season progressed, I added a ring of Penstemon around the tree, three lavenders, a couple of baby rosemary plants and an African bush basil, some donated cleome seedlings and an infant chrysanthemum, then sprinkled some giant zinnia seeds around. Later I added three Shasta daisies, three Echinacea, two black-eyed Susans, a creeping thyme, a couple of creeping phlox, and five Dianthus japonica that had volunteered elsewhere in my gardens. Still later, I tucked in two purple Stokesia, a Veronica longifolia that is still sending up purple spikes, and a couple of donated blue Agastache. All these plantings were experimental. The plot still has relatively poor soil. It gets some morning sun and full afternoon sun all summer, plus all the reflected heat of the surrounding asphalt and nearby brick walls. I can reach it with my patio hose, so watering is possible when needed.
To my great delight, and to the pleasure of many neighbors, the garden has thrived. Not many of the zinnia seeds took, but those that did turned into 30-inch tall plants covered in filled magenta blooms that have made the bumble bees and other pollinators extremely happy. The African bush basil grew to be about three feet in diameter and nearly that tall. It hummed with bees and bee flies and occasional butterflies all summer long. Everything survived and bloomed. Some things are doing better than others, but even the half-dead Liriope border that looked so unpromising last November grew into green and white-striped clumps and put up purple flower stalks.
The true test will be how it all survives the winter. The annuals will be pulled after the first frost. Some will have seeded, I hope. With luck the lavender and rosemary plants, now small bushes, will provide winter interest, and next spring, the perennials will come back to life after the cherry tree loses its pink blooms and as the bulbs are dying back. I’m willing to be patient again until that happens. Stay tuned.