The invisible hand of the garden

Triteleia grandiflora spontaneously appeared in the garden this year. I didn’t bring it here by any means: seed, bulb, or live plant. I wouldn’t even have planted or sowed it where it is growing (in the lush overgrowth of the Gift Garden down by the pond). If it weren’t flowering, I wouldn’t know it was there. Its leaves are so shaded by the adjacent Eupatorium perfoliatum, Mulgedium pulchellum, Tanacetum parthenium, it’s a wonder the plant can photosynthesize enough to produce a flower stalk.

Triteleia grandiflora is a plant of shrub steppe, grasslands, oak woodlands, and dry savanna in warmer and drier climates. The nearest known native populations are near the towns of Chase (SSE 115 km) and Lytton (SW 150 km). The species is far more common down in the US; I’ve seldom seen it north of the border.

Blitum nuttallianum and Oxybasis salina are two other surprises in the garden this year, both of them salt-loving plants of dry climates. This is not the sort of climate, and these are not the sort of soils, where either should ever be expected to grow in or on.

Other astonishing and unexpected additions to the gardens have appeared in recent years:

The arctic and high-latitude alpine tundra annual Koenigia islandica appeared unexpectedly in the peat bed in 2022. It must have arrived on my boots after one of my journeys to the far north, though the chances of that happening are slim–it’s not a common species, and I don’t wear my hiking boots in the garden.

Ridiculously, the Koenigia was growing next to an unexpected Nicotiana attenuata, a wild tobacco species found in deserts, steppe, and ponderosa savanna. I had tried unsuccessfully to grow the tobacco for the prior two years in conditions more ideal for a desert plant than shaded, moist, cool peat by the pond, where it grew next to its arctic friend, happily blooming and looking better than any of the tobacco I’d grown intentionally.

Erigeron divaricatus, another steppe plant common on sandy soils among sagebrush and Purshia, flowered beautifully in a shade garden one year, in what should not be favourable habitat at all. One of its progeny is there in rosette form currently, perhaps preparing for a bloom in 2025? I hadn’t (at least knowingly) been in the presence of wild E. divaricatus for many years. How did it get here?

How did the South American red-flowered Geum magellanicum arrive? It appeared one year, announcing its presence on a stone wall by the pond with its hot red flowers.

And it isn’t only ornamentals and native species. Last year, a rutabaga appeared spontaneously in the gravel at the driveway edge where it meets the west base of the cabin. There’s not much soil in that gravel, which is underlain by landscaping sheets. Yet the root was large, delicious and tender. I had grown rutabagas unsuccessfully a few years before–I didn’t let them mature fully before pulling them all up and burning them since some had lumps on their roots that looked suspiciously like the dreaded clubroot disease. I also discarded the rutabaga seed packets in the garbage and applied quicklime thickly to the rows to raise the pH in hopes of killing the pathogen, if indeed it was there. It had been some years since I’d had rutabaga seeds in stock, and I know no one around here who grows rutabagas. And yet there was this perfect rutabaga, a gift of spontaneous generation.

Many other plants that I have not ever intended to grow have joined the garden list apparently of their own accord. But this only started happening about six or seven years ago. Prior to that, the only surprises were new weeds. Now I record several additional native or ornamental species each year in the various garden beds. What is behind this diversification? Whose invisible hand is at work here? I know it’s not just lapses of memory or poor record-keeping. I keep (meticulous?) records of all I sow and plant in the garden each year. I wouldn’t have omitted Triteleia grandiflora from the records. It’s probably not seed contamination, at least not in all cases. And no seed company would have Koenigia contamination in their stock.

In the past ten years, especially since 2020, the garden beds seem to have evolved into fuller, more thriving ecosystems, perhaps integrating the cultivated plants with new and/or proliferated fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates into networks of higher complexity than what they had to begin with. Twenty years ago, the gardens were sadly sparse, incapable, unlively, weedy. It was difficult to get desired plants to establish and thrive. Now it’s become easy. Most of the recently dug garden beds, even those on poor, stony soil, mature fast with lush results within two or three years. The soil of those new garden beds changes visibly from one year to the next: it becomes looser, darker, deeper. The plants start jostling for space, mutually supporting each other by stems and leaves. It’s like a vitality switch goes from off to on.

The gardens of Edgewood now seem more prepared to assimilate immigrant plants, whatever their vector of arrival. If a Triteleia seed hitched a ride on my pant cuff and shook off in the Gift Garden 15 years ago, I doubt it would have done anything but desiccate or rot. Maybe in those early years of the gardens, Triteleia seeds in quantities in the thousands might have provided the numerical chances sufficient for one to germinate and establish. But now it seems the gardens have gained much more capacity for fostering just one Triteleia seed into a mature flowering plant.

We will keep creating new garden beds here at Edgewood. We have hopelessly weedy ground to reclaim (hawkweeds and bluegrass patches), and former forest vegetation that has had to be cleared to reduce fire danger to our buildings. Those converted grounds must become new garden beds to prevent them returning to weeds and fire-prone woody growth. The newly cultivated ground will become garden-capable with the removal of stones and roots, and with the purging of weeds. I shall add a bit of compost or sand, and irrigate when needed, but the soil will be otherwise unmodified. And I’ll watch those gardens for the unexpected, unplanned additions, the work of the invisible hand (or an unseen serial guerilla gardener?).

Who knows what I’ll find next.

What fun!

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