Our 'rogue' vegetables are like Dickensian heroes

We call them rogues, the plants that spring up and surprise us in odd corners of the garden. A few seeds always manage to last all winter long and sprout in this year's bed. The seedlings appear like foundlings on the back steps, unbidden and unknown. They poke their scruffy heads out among their more pampered cousins. It makes me think of Mickey Rooney and Freddie Bartholomew confronting each other in some long-forgotten (or never-made) MGM historical epic.

My wife, Louise, won't let me pull them out.

I point to a cherry tomato, undoubtedly the great-great-grandchild of one we planted in 1999. "Why don't you just pull it?" I ask. "It's only in the way."

Louise gently digs it up and slips it into a pot. "I'll find a place for it," she says.

As far as I'm concerned, they're weeds. Anything that's growing where I don't want it is a weed, and food for the compost heap. But to Louise, they're like old friends she never thought she'd see again, and something more: They're survivors.

If she can, she leaves the little urchins right where they are. If she can't do that, she digs them up and replants them someplace else. The garden is pockmarked with little craters that show where she's found and shifted one of these interlopers. Tucked among our broccoli, there's a single Grand Rapids lettuce. We've got dill coming up around the peppers, and cilantro by the peas. There's a lone bush bean out of line and out of step with the onions all around it.

We spent a lot of time poring over seed catalogs to find just the right strains for our climate and soil. We planned every square foot of space in the garden and scheduled our planting meticulously. We wanted to ensure that we had the makings of a decent salad as soon as possible, that we wouldn't be inundated with tomatoes and have to can 600 quarts of ketchup in one weekend, and that enough cucumbers would ripen at the same time to make a pickling session worth the trouble. Everything was worked out just so.

But Louise can always find room for one more homeless rogue.

She says it's because she hates waste and you never know when they might come in handy. And it's true that when the basil in the kitchen garden failed, Louise found some rogue basil near the pole beans to take its place. But I know the real reason is that these misfits appeal to the romantic in her.

It was she who first named them rogues. She imagines these orphan seeds thrown out in the world like Dickensian heroes, living by their wits, sleeping out under the stars, always on the lookout for marauding birds and squirrels. Braving the frost and icy winds, they huddle against the earth for warmth and wait for their fortunes to turn.

And when spring comes, they've got to fight it out with the weeds on the weeds' own turf. Like pioneers, they stake their claim to a patch of ground, put down roots, stand tall, and hold on. Claim-jumping dandelions, hungry grubs and worms, famine, drought, and disease all have to be met and overcome. The way Louise sees it, the rogues have passed the test. They've earned the right to grow.

Recently, I've come to see she's right. Finding a rogue reminds us that plants can get along without us if they have to. They managed just fine on their own for a couple of billion years. Then some meddlesome anthropoid discovered parts of them were good to eat, and they haven't had a moment's peace since. Now the anthropoid's descendants take all the credit for something that any Brussels sprout knows how to do all by itself. You don't make your garden grow.

Cradling her rescued tomato in a pot, Louise watches our 2-year-old daughter chasing the dogs around the lawn. To the left of the vegetables she can see raised beds she's planted with herbs that have names straight out of Robin Hood: Good King Henry, Yarrow, Vervain, and Our Lady's Bedstraw.

The beds are mulched with cocoa bean shells, and when the wind is right, the whole yard smells like chocolate. If she turns to the right she can see a bed of daffodils, their blossoms spent now, and among them four pepper plants (because they had to go somewhere). Along the fence grow jack-in-the-pulpits she found in her mother's backyard. By the garage is a row of raspberry canes, most of which used to grow under our deck. On that deck, potted plants - some grown, some purchased, some found - wait for a home. All around her is a riot of living things.

Louise understands that what we're dealing with is more important than salad or ketchup or pickles. We're dealing with life. Much more than their domesticated bedfellows, the rogues exemplify the mystery and daring and persistence of being alive. It's not something to ignore or uproot carelessly. It's something to respect and nurture and hold in awe.

The other day, while tilling a section of the garden, I came across a tiny leek that had somehow made it through winter.

I tilled around it.

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