Gardening by Surprise


TGSG Note: Followers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of gardening with kids, and of pretty much anything that involves dirt. My long-time friend, Shelbey, was kind enough to write this delightful piece on what she’s growing in her surprise garden. Amongst the plants and weeds, a family is growing in a world of discovery. It’s a great reminder that “life is what happens when we make other plans,” and we are always richer for the experience. Thanks for stopping by Shel, and sharing your story with us. See ya outside! – The Grass Stain Guru

Here in Florida, everything grows, which may sound like some shadow of Eden.  But “everything” includes countless weeds and pests, and even when these aren’t encroaching on my grand landscape plans, I have to contend with an assortment of whiffleballs and plastic pools and makeshift digging tools.  As for time to landscape and weed and feed and deadhead?  The to-do list grows as fast as the grass.

Enter the surprise garden.  My own premise is a little less reliable, but equally transferable: I don’t remember planting that there, but it grew anyway.  This is the real organic gardening: sitting down with my girls to poke and dig in dirt, letting a spot happen, not hovering over it too much.  We pick a packet of seeds that looks good to us—sugar snap peas, calendula flowers, bright blue morning glories—and start finding spots to plant.  A bare spot in a veggie plot or a corner that reaches just enough sun, a sprinkle of water, and for now, we are done.

My girls are 5 and 7, and they are blossoming into botanists.  These, my own little sprouts, will grow and change, and all that growth will change the garden.  When we got started, I still wasn’t sure what would grow really well in this climate and how to work with the Florida seasons, so we would scatter seeds in various spots to see what came up.  More often than not we’d forget about some of them, so it was always a surprise to see what would poke out of a plot.


Anything that does grow needs to be tough.  We found that many seedlings could survive even if trampled.  Plants that grew big and bushy were destined to become a new hideaway, so they had to withstand the ravages of tussles and kickballs.  We’ve grown a sunflower alley and a scarlet-runner-bean-tent, and a few fun theme gardens.   But we always come back to those unexpected surprises, beginning with the forgotten seeds that have grown into colorful flowers.  Now my girls notice other fun surprises:  Some bees are bright green, and some bugs hover like hummingbirds.  That plant missing half its leaves harbors a monarch or swallowtail caterpillar.  Hiding in the center of a bromeliad is a tree frog.

Children notice gardens from the ground up.  Things that creep and crawl catch their interest more than mere scenery.  Picking up chunks of mulch reveals the roly-polies that my younger daughter loves; tiny weed flowers become bouquets, since they are easy to pick, and not thorny like roses.  One afternoon during a playdate, my friend’s son treated us to ‘salads’ he made from the garden, each with a lettuce leaf wrapped around a nasturtium, a sugar snap pea, and a few chives.  We’d even squeeze the nectar out of the nasturtium, tasting the delight that draws butterflies to them.

Our garden has become a release and a distraction, a place to try new scents and shapes and flavors—a space to play in and play with.  It’s the place to be in the late afternoon when that famous “witching hour” sets in, where outside voices are welcome among frog-yelps and cricket-chirps.  What I envisioned may have been grand, but what I have planted along the way has held plenty of other surprises. That landscape, it turns out, looks best when my children are running around in it.


Guest Blogger Bio: Shelbey Rosengarten gardens in Florida with her two short assistants.  An educator and writer, she teaches composition at her local college, where she has gotten involved with a local habitat restoration project.  Shelby made an appearance at the 2008 Great American Teach-In with a presentation, “The plants we eat,” much to the delight of a class of first-graders. She has a fondness for good friends, belly laughs, and flannel shirts  –  even though it is a tad too warm for them in Florida.

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