In the Garden: Planting Ahead

This winter, plan all you want: spring always surprises

WHEN I PLANTED my first garden 30 years ago, in the hard- scrabble backyard of an apartment at 23rd and Walnut, I worked out every inch beforehand on paper. I loved nothing more than paging through plant catalogs and sketching,  on blue-lined graphing paper, scale models of my meager space — with its heaving, uneven brick walkways and cement-block walls and unyielding earth. I liked symmetry: six dahlias here, six dahlias there. Three red zinnias balanced by three white zinnias, then three more red ones. I was earnest and strict, and I resented it when plants strayed outside their given turf. If growing things are supposed to run wild, my thinking went, why do we call gardens “plots”?

Fifteen years later, when we finally moved out to the suburbs, I had two kids and two cats and a lot less interest in garden symmetry and perfection. With no time to water or weed, much less start seeds indoors, I found myself thrusting six-packs of ­garden-center annuals in the ground and praying for rain. But back then, garden-center annuals were a lot less interesting than they are now, tending as they did toward lonely-soldier red salvia, coarse marigolds and droopy petunias (before the Wave movement transformed the genus). So I developed an intense fondness for garden stalwarts that could be sown in situ: cornflowers, sunflowers, larkspur, Shirley poppies, nasturtiums. These still fill my beds today, alongside bulbs and perennials bought with the gift certificates I beg for ­whenever anyone asks what I want for Christmas. I love my fancy phlox, my robust echinacea, my Oriental lilies and ethereal blue lace-cap hydrangea. But more than anything else in my yard, I love the volunteers.

I even love the name, with its echoes of bold, unconscripted soldiers sallying forth for battle. Volunteers are the mortal enemies of graphing-paper gardens. They show up where and when they please, daring you to root them out. The first one I remember in this, my current yard, was a pink hollyhock, as feminine and frilly as a petticoat. It wandered inside my fence from three doors down, where a whole stand of its sisters brightened the side of an otherwise derelict old garage. Recognizing the leaf, I decided to let it stay — and was mortally grateful I had when a new owner of that garage yanked its ancestors up and tossed them out with the garbage. That first plant’s progeny continue to pop up in my garden, and not always where you want a stalky six-foot spike that tends to be rust-riddled. I’m lenient, though.

I feel about my pink hollyhocks the way Philadelphia’s John Bartram must have when he returned to the Georgia riverbank where he’d first glimpsed the exquisite flowering tree he named Franklinia in honor of his friend Ben Franklin — and found that it had vanished. All the Franklinia trees in the world today are descendants of the seeds he took on his first visit; the species has never again been seen in the wild. My hollyhocks preserve a less venerable line, but I think they’re pretty. Besides, I’m a sucker for a plant with a backstory.