The older couple who lived in the house to the south of ours when we first moved in were energetic gardeners, specializing in spring bulbs and gaudy, gorgeous peonies. They moved out, reluctantly, when they needed more space to accommodate the wife’s infirm mother. But I think of them every spring when the lilies of the valley that have crept into my yard from theirs bloom, along with the striking sky-blue irises that also crossed the fence. I have peonies thanks to them as well: a patch of white and one of pink that slipped over the boundary, and a solitary plant, on the opposite side of the yard, that hasn’t bloomed for the three years I’ve been watching it get bigger and stronger. I can hardly wait to see what it turns out to be. Subsequent occupants have leveled the couple’s raised beds, yanked out every bush and shrub, and laid down squares of sod. All that remains of their beloved garden is what’s turned up in mine.Plants that you actually get as gifts from friends—divided roots of their Shasta daisies, hosta, daylilies—don’t count as volunteers. But interlopers that arrive along with the divisions do. My BGF (Best Gardening Friend) Ruth keeps trying to give me clumps of her sprawling, buff orange Oriental poppies, but for some reason, they just don’t take in my yard. The golden coreopsis that snuck in with them, on the other hand, runs rampant all summer long.
Some volunteers seem impossible to explain. Every spring, at the foot of my yellow forsythia, there appear dozens of frail, nodding tulips whose flowers are the exact same shade of yellow. I never planted tulips underneath that bush — who would, considering how it bullies and sprawls? Each winter, I agonize over whether this will be the year the forsythia vanquishes those shy tulips once and for all — and yet each spring, there they are again, when I’ve almost forgotten to look for them. They aren’t big. They aren’t elegant. But their unknown provenance endears them to me. They remind me of the ungainly, unlikely items that turn up on Antiques Roadshow for evaluation. Maybe you wouldn’t have chosen that peculiar primitive landscape you inherited from Aunt Jane, or the impossibly rococo soup tureen that was a wedding gift to Grandma. But there they are in your house, and hey, even if they’re worthless, they’re worth something to you!
Which brings me to my all-time favorite volunteer, one that’s as unassuming as those tulips. It’s a petunia, of all things, no more than eight inches high, rambling in habit, with smallish magenta flowers. You’d walk right past it in a garden center — unless for some reason you got close enough to catch its faint but lovely clove-vanilla scent. A solitary unnamed, unclaimed plant appeared this year in the bed that runs along the side of my house. There’s nothing like it in any of my neighbors’ gardens. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in mine. But there it is, between the English rose and the Korean lilac. Who knows where it hails from, or how?
I don’t expect to see it again. That’s part and parcel with volunteers; like Brandy’s sailor in that ’70s song, they tell their stories and then they leave you. You love them even though you know they’re fickle. Maybe you love them more, because in their unplotted peregrinations, they remind you: “You think you’re in charge of this garden, but what do you know?” I can buy another English rosebush, another Korean lilac. If my little petunia vanishes like Bartram’s Franklinia, though, I won’t be able to replace it, not at any price. And yet I paid nothing for it. Sometimes the best things in life really, literally, are free.