The best gardens just happen

The flower beds don't look as she originally planned – they're even better.

This garden of mine is not what I'd planned. The original idea was a perfectly choreographed old-fashioned affair with lofty hollyhocks, foxgloves, and lupines shading bright snapdragons and fragrant lavender. As I gaze over the results today, I am surprised at what I've ended up with. This garden seems to have taken on a life of its own.

When we first purchased our home, it was in a newly constructed neighborhood. There were no trees or shrubs, and my flower bed, a vast expanse of rich dark soil, was a blank canvas waiting to be painted.

In those first days, tentative new acquaintances became fast friends as we shared trips to the local nurseries. We'd wander happily among the blooms and bushes and come home with armfuls of practical petunias and daffodil bulbs, along with impulse-buy exotics, which promptly perished during their first Utah winter.

We carefully diagramed our garden plots, comparing notes and how-to books, and then we strategically placed plants and tiny new trees to achieve the maximum effect.

The tiny trees are giants now, and over the years my precisely executed garden has undergone a slow metamorphosis. No longer a regimented map of height and color, my original creation has softened its lines and frayed around the edges a bit. It's become a more comfortable garden, reflecting, I hope, a mellower, more open-minded gardener.

There was a time when nothing unexpected set foot in my plot. Stray seeds that took root were immediately banished. No illicit entries here. Every newcomer had to be invited and agree to stay in its place.

Then one day I was given a beautiful peony as a gift. Its billowy white blooms fit perfectly with my theme, but I had not included it in my plans. I was baffled. Where could I put it without throwing everything wildly out of sync? Not wanting to offend the giver, I finally found a place – and was surprised to note that I loved the addition.

My amazing mother-in-law single-handedly raised seven children. She also raises beautiful iris plants. While on a visit, I complimented her green thumb, and soon received a package of iris rhizomes in the mail. Predictably, I was not enthused about this. The spiky, swordlike leaves of the iris were at odds with my misty fairy-garden idea, but once they bloomed, I was enchanted by their elegant multihued blossoms. Before long, I had devoted an entire bed to their showy grandeur.

Melinda is my walking partner. She is a good listener and tells great jokes, even at 6 a.m. My favorite flowers often originate in her garden. One day as I bemoaned my yard's lack of summer color, she suggested a plant called Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber). I listened; I was beginning to realize that in my garden, as well as in life, my own ideas were not the only good ones.

With sage-green foliage and pinky-red flowers, this plant thrives when others are hiding from the heat. It also reproduces in abundance and, I am happy to say, I now allow new ones to pop up at random places in the landscape.

My neighbor across the way is a master gardener who was diagnosed with a debilitating disease. One day she was inspired to share her poppies with me. With their bobbing heads and brilliant painted faces, they're now the clowns of my garden.

There was a time when I would have scoffed at the idea of including these incongruous bumpkins in my flower beds. Today the vivid orange blooms remind me of my friend's bright courage in the face of adversity. I eagerly anticipate their appearance each year.

I was thrilled when my grandmother sent me some pods from the massive sweet pea vine that graced the side of her Oregon home. In return, I shared some seeds from the pink hollyhocks that stood sentinel by my bedroom window. The sweet pea regaled us with its scented flowers for years, and then, unaccountably, failed to reseed one spring. I was devastated. The vine had been a cherished connection with my sweet country grandmother, who loved to quilt and garden. She was gone now, and the house, along with the original vine, had been torn down.

I learned a hard lesson from this experience. Gather seeds from plants that you cherish, because delicate flowers, like grandmothers, may not be around forever.

As I consider the weeping cherry tree in the corner of the garden – a heartfelt gift from friends when my father died – I realize there are many things that I've learned from my garden: How to lighten up, expand my horizons, and consider the opinions of others. Both I and my garden have evolved and adapted over the years.

I like my garden now. It's good for my soul. And while this multicolored jumble of tributes and memories is certainly not what I'd planned, I suspect it's even better.

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