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Strangers in the Garden


Boston.--There have been strangers in my garden this spring. Each time I come across another one I am surprised, rather like a hostess encountering uninvited guests at her lawn party.

In April, it was the crocuses. They dropped in, unannounced, out of nowhere. They made their appearance in full blue bloom, under the bushes.

Then came a single red tulip, unplanned and, I assure you, unplanted. It stood around boldly, upright and unabashed, as if it were an innocent passer-by and not a gate-crasher.

Other highly irregular intrusions have occurred as well on this small private plot of land that I call mine. A daffodil turned up in bright yellow although the dress code for daffodils that I specified in the invitations was apricot-colored. This bulb did not conform.

A thick-stemmed bearded iris is now growing as well. It seems to have claimed refugee status among the Siberian iris to whom -- excuse me, to which -- I allotted a small corner of the border space.

There was, I assure you, no place card assigned to red tulips or to bearded iris at the small and carefully set table that is my garden. Nor is there any room in the vegetable patch for the raspberry stalks that spent the interminable winter underground only to reappear, sending up a dozen advance scouts in the space designated for tomatoes.

Such strangers do not fit and I know that I should deal with them as ruthlessly and unsentimentally as a bouncer at a barroom door would deal with a rowdy.

After all, like most urban gardeners, I have more lust for growing than I have land. My quarter-acre is circumscribed by deed and driveway, a piece of property more than a piece of nature. It's an exterior decoration painted by seeds and bulbs.

Like others who have back yards instead of back forties I treat this as a place to grow exactly what I choose. No trespassing allowed.

Yet I find myself unable to uproot the offending tulip and reluctant to expel that garishly clad daffodil from his more aristocratic and restrained cohort. I suspect that I will put off the job until the intruders retreat to their respective bulbs.

The dirty little secret is that I have become fond of these eccentrics the way a teacher might secretly be fond of a rebellious student even while trying to keep that student in line. I have paid as much attention to these strangers as to the regulars who were put there on purpose. My purpose.

Maybe my reluctance is the result of some small eco-sensibility. The earth is now cultivated to within an inch of life. When nature seems dependent on the care and feeding and non-trampling of humans, there is something wonderful in any evidence of its independence.

Maybe it's a respect for imperfection. There are Indian designs left asymmetrical or incomplete as proof of humility. But I suspect that it has as much to do with the life cycle as the natural cycle.

There are people in their 20s -- I think I was one of them -- who want to put their own stamp on the world. They plan, they make and stake claims. They put their names on things, whether they are on newspaper articles or letterheads or store signs, or, for that matter, on children.

When we are young, we go about the hard labor of clearing some space in the culture. It's people in their 20s or early 30s who want to make an impression on their field -- of earth or research -- and believe they can raise children according to the landscape blueprints.

But at some point the impulse to make your world and those within it according to your own specifications begins to be tempered with acceptance. The planner may begin to also find delight in accident. The controller, in serendipity.

The best-laid plans of this planter have gone awry more than once. More than twice. Still, I am not ready to give up my garden to dandelions. I will offer no odes to crabgrass.

But in the grand design of my small piece of soil there is room for a wayward tulip, an accidental crocus and a misplaced iris.

So, welcome strangers. Make yourselves at home.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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