Thoughts from a Gardener of a Certain Age

By: Kristin Yanker-Hansen

Kristin Yanker-Hansen is a garden designer, past president of the California Horticultural Society, and a current member of the board of…

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Scilla peruviana. Photographs by Saxon Holt

Scilla peruviana. Photographs by Saxon Holt

Although I don’t think of myself as old, I have already gardened for over thirty-five years, including almost twenty-five years in Northern California. I love experimenting with new plants, and continue to seek out gems that might perform well in my Danville garden, thirty miles inland from San Francisco. Such wanton experimentation can prove risky: I have discovered that some plants perform too well, and it now looks like I may never rid my garden of them. It’s spring in the garden, and there remain several pesky plants where my attempts at eradication have met with little success. When we purchased this property in the autumn of 1987, there were orange and yellow calendulas (Calendula officinalis) everywhere. These were not the hybrids you find in six packs, but rather robust specimens that acted like aggressive weeds.

At first, I tried to weed them out, with the hope of getting rid of them forever. But, young children, the PTA, and other things occupied a lot of my time, and I never completely obliterated the plants. I noticed that the calendulas grew and blossomed pretty much all year, even in areas where I provided no summer irrigation. Subsequently, I found out that the flowers are edible, and the petals began to provide color for winter salads.

The war with the calendulas is over now, although there are still occasional skirmishes when they move into a watered area of the garden. I don’t wish to share my precious water with a plant that can survive without it, when there are so many that don’t have that capacity. In non-watered areas, they bloom profusely, even in the rain, and I’ve come to enjoy their colors that add so much warmth to grey winter days.

Calendula officinalis

Singing the Blues

I feel less tolerant of the inaccurately named Scilla peruviana. A bulb dealer and former member of the California Horticultural Society once stood in front of the group praising this South African bulb and telling us the white form was so rare. Every year, I am appalled that gift plants of this species are sold for exorbitant sums at florist shops. They come up in the cracks of my driveway and grow in both the watered and unwatered parts of the garden with almost equal vigor.

I  didn’t like the location of one plant and dug it out repeatedly for five years before I succeeded in eradicating it from the bed. I made sure there was a bulb at the bottom of each plant I dug, but somehow a new shoot would emerge the following year.

I actually like the flowers of this species. The dramatic umbels are generally a rich blue. I have several of the “rare” white forms, one showing no blue at all, along with pale blue, dark blue, and everything in between.

Now, even before the last flowers are spent, I remove all the seed heads and place them in the green-waste bin, to be hauled away as compostable material along with the seed heads of all the other weeds from the garden. I always miss a few heads, and find new plants coming up every year.

I have even less tolerance for Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Poets write verses in praise for this pest; they must not be gardeners. Its common name, blue- bells, has such a romantic ring, but, if you have dug up as many as I have, the experience can change your whole attitude about romance. Instead of a typical bulb with roots at the bottom, this species develops more of a tuber. There does not seem to be an up or a down to it, and just a small piece   of it will produce a new plant. The tubers lie deep in the soil, and even when you think it might have been obliterated, up it pops again next year. I dig them every year, but they just seem to multiply. Appalled that I throw them into the green-waste bin, friends take them home for their own gardens. I warn them that they may hate me later when the bluebells take over.

On the other hand, when non-gardeners walk by and tell me they are looking for something that is beautiful and requires minimal maintenance, I give them a bucket full of bluebell tubers. They come back the following year to tell me of their success.

All of these pesky plants were here in the garden before I moved in. They are still here, and probably will be when I move out, for the next gardener to love or hate. There are other plants that I have planted, however, that are  equally aggressive. I  was even warned by gardeners long gone that I might want to forgo putting particular plants into my garden, but I was young and thought that I could always garden with the vigor of my youth. I hope some of my experiences will help dissuade younger gardeners from repeating my follies.