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© Bella Stander


Found Gardens
Weekly Almanac, Honesdale, Pa.
May 11, 1990

by Bella Stander

It seems as though everyone admires old-fashioned gardens, the kind that Grandma once had, filled with colorful, fragrant, hardy flowers. Yet when you try to buy the plants that Grandma grew, very often you can only find "improved" hybridized versions, frequently with fragrance sacrificed for blossom size or some other arguably valuable quality. Some growers do specialize in "heirloom" plants, but you discover early on that buying them in quantity gets rather pricey.

If you're lucky, Grandma, or some other kindly mature gardener, lives close by and you can cadge some plants from her. But having no grandmother and a limited gardening budget, I've discovered another way to acquire old-time perennials. How? By walking the dog. You'd be surprised at how many old house foundations you stumble across while roaming the woods with a dog. Where there are old foundations, there are old gardens. And the flowers that have survived are the toughest, hardiest and most disease- and pest-resistent.

Long-lived perennials and shrubs to look for include: peonies, iris, daffodils and other spring bulbs, roses, lilacs, ornamental quince, columbines and day lilies. Among the edible plants are asparagus, horseradish (impossible to kill--or contain), raspberries, currants and gooseberries.

Within dog-walking distance of my house I've found divinely scented pink damask roses, purpley-blue columbines, orange day lilies, and red and white peonies, all of which settled into my garden without skipping a beat. I neither mulch, nor spray, nor lime these plants. I figure that if they lasted for decades on their own, they hardly need to be meddled with now, and so far I've been proven right.

Obviously the dog isn't the key ingredient here. I've gotten quite good at spotting abandoned gardens from behind the wheel of a car. I'm considering getting a bumper sticker made up that reads, "Warning: I brake for flowers." Once you get started, you'll hardly be able to drive anywhere around here without seeing potential sites for garden riches.

It makes sense to visit an old garden at various times of year, so as to see the full range of what's there. One spot I know of is covered with wonderful frilly daffodils right now (a variety I haven't found in any catalogue), which are completely invisible by June, when the roses are blooming.

Before tearing up the countryside, it is important to get permission to dig from the relevant property-owners. To my husband's intense embarrassment, I've become quite shameless in asking even complete strangers if I can take some of their plants. Everyone I've ever asked, though, has granted my request; many are (amazing to me) completely oblivious to the plant treasures in their possession.

When you dig up a plant, be sure to take a generous amount of soil along with it to help it settle in better when transplanted. I always take note of the plant's original setting, if it seems happy, so I can duplicate it at home as much as possible. I found the columbines, for example, in shaded woods, so I put them in a semi-shady spot of my garden with lots of leaf mould. On the other hand, one of the roses I found was languishing under some tall trees. It's now fat and sassy, soaking up the sun on a south- facing bank in my front yard.

After digging up plants, I smooth over the ground so it isn't riddled with holes like Swiss cheese. There are two reasons for this. First, it looks better, and the property owner won't feel that you're despoiling his/her land. Second, no one (such as yourself, on a return trip for more goodies) will stumble in the hole you've made.

It's very satisfying to me to look around my garden and see plants that I've rescued from abandonment and obscurity. I know that each one was originally planted by someone, usually a busy farm woman, who once took the time to care for it. I like to think that, although she may be forgotten, her efforts at bringing beauty to a small corner of the world are still appreciated.

© 1990 Bella Stander

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