MY WEIRD GARDEN is not my fault (blame my sister, Margaret). In fact, I had no idea it was weird. And then I got a call. “These hideous plants by the back door. They are taking over my house. Please come over, dig them up, and take them away.”
This was not a kind request. This was a demand from a guy to whom I had just sold the very house in which my husband had carried me over the threshold, the house of my early married years. A depressed hovel when we bought it, we had ripped out ceilings, exposing hundred-year-old beams; restored a 45 x 11 chicken coop, transforming it into an office/library/music room; painted, wallpapered; and outfitted the single (sigh) bathroom with a funny/fabulous claw-footed tub.
A fancy hovel when we left it, its true beauty is its gardens. I had planted thousands of bulbs; rose bushes had become a hedge; we dug three perennial beds; a huge fenced vegetable garden was placed in back; English cottage-style beds of herbs and flowers soon ringed each of the property’s four buildings.
The problem was that none of the plants were “normal,” as the man who bought my house liked to tell me during his four ever-skeptical, pre-purchase visits. The gardens really bothered him. The herbs were choices like hyssop and horehound; witches broom was a great favorite, as were the native skunk cabbage I left and accented with Crown Imperial Frittilaria (also skunky-smelling), amusing, apparently, only myself. The list goes on, but the worst offender, as far as the new owner was concerned, were these 4-foot wide, green monster-leaves whose roots spread like butter in a skillet and which Margaret had once referred to as “aggressive.”
Petasites japonicus, native to Korea, China and Japan, is not for the feint of heart. It is not to be messed with. And I love it for that (though I would not share it and know to keep it in bounds, responsibly, with regular reining in with a sharp shovel, tossing the dug-up bits in the trash, not the compost). I had taken home my original hunk from Margaret’s garden, and to say it is “aggressive” is to say that, in some lights, I might have red hair. “Invasive,” is a little better; “marauding” might be best, as evidenced by how it dug into the 150-year-old foundation of the house, forcing its knobby way between the old foundation stones, as well as upending the ancient kitchen pathway flagstones. It is not something I would share, knowing all this. But to me the plant appeared as something fairies might be found sitting on, each leaf so broad, and each supporting stalk so brazenly sturdy that I simply couldn’t get enough of it.
The petasites is not the only example of non-traditional plants. My current weird garden also includes white ‘Next Egg’ gourds and small, moon-colored pumpkins that jump the garden fence and invariably end up hanging from the limbs of the sour cherry tree next to the garden. The seeds of both the gourds and the pumpkins were given to me by Margaret. And when the ‘Nest Egg’ gourds are harvested, they come inside to dry, and stay for years, providing moveable décor that tend to nest in candelabra and on windowsills, both in her home and in mine.
Which reminds me that my weird garden is not relegated to the outdoors. My houseplants seem to either make people look deeply into them and kind of smile or simply back away. I offer only a photo of bowiea, since I have a tacit policy of not photographing my children. You either love bowiea or you don’t. And guess who has a tremendo-gigundo version of this baby in her kitchen window?
My husband once qualified all this, saying that Roach girl indoor gardens are a “cross between the Adams family and a Thurber cartoon.” I like it.
So, I offer up this provocation for this season. It’s about the inheritance of eccentricity. This is one of those issues that population geneticists and social scientists shy away from, needing to go sharpen their pencils and sanitize their pocket protectors when this query is posed. So let’s take it on here, shall we?
It has to do with taste, I guess, another of those slippery discussions, but uber-important, since it is how we decide what to surround ourselves with, about our very habitats and decoration, about how we express ourselves. In the case of the Roach sisters, it seems that some of these preferences travel sideways, sister-to-sister. (Or would that be downward, older sister to younger?)
Is there something that your sibling does that while decidedly oddball, you do, too? For us, it’s gardening in the Roach-girl way.
And yours is….?