Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: The Accidental Gardener Confesses, or Brags

By Ron Sullivan
Friday March 21, 2008
Salsify—“oyster plant”—is a common local weed with an edible root.
Ron Sullivan
Salsify—“oyster plant”—is a common local weed with an edible root.

I do have a modest talent for growing things. The catch is that what grows isn’t always what I had in mind.  

I accidentally raised a colony of mushrooms in my former truck’s cab—Peziza domiciliana, the North American bathroom mushroom. Fungi are commonly uninvited garden (and bathroom) guests. Sometimes they portend disaster, like armillaria around an oak. Sometimes they’re a fairy ring gracing a lawn. Sometimes they’re a pure gift. When we first moved to this house, I was in raging despair over the sullen, poorly drained clay. After a day of wrestling with it (and losing) we found a morel. One morel. It was a shill; we haven’t seen a morel since, even after soggy winters, but it was a brief consolation.  

I am also learning to eat the weeds. I suspect this is a hardwired survival trait. Before I’d made my mind up about what to put in one bare spot, a sprawly octopus of purslane-verdolaga-had homestaked it. Guess what? It tastes a bit like sorrel, and it’s crunchy. I’m not stalking the wild asparagus here (though I have seen it in ditches in the Delta) but knowing I can eat some invaders makes gardening somehow less of a war. 

I’d learned about purslane just in time. I still slap myself now for passing up that nasty-looking corn my friend Ray grew in his yard years ago. It had some ominous gray swollen kernels… Yes, huitlacoche, a.k.a. cuitlacoche, a.k.a. corn smut. That name must be designed to fend off the hoi polloi. 

At the time, Ray had one of those gardens where half the weeds are purple potatoes and half are poison hemlock. You do want to know what you’re biting into.  

I am both tantalized and appalled at the furious spread of feral Chinese chives—miles of it along roadsides in Marin, and patches in isolated parks where endangered plants live. They’re tasty; maybe we can eat them all. Just don’t admit their provenance. 

Then again, I’ve seen pickleweed going for over $5 a pound: that jointed crunchy stuff that covers most of the Bay’s salt marshes. I’m keeping an eye out for a clean wild source. I have enough water for it in my yard most winters, but it’s not saltwater.  

I started young, gardening accidentally. When I was a kid, one thing we did around Halloween was shell out dry corn kernels and throw them to rattle against people’s windows at night. (It was an innocent time.) I threw some at my own front window, and that spring Dad mulched the shrubs. Suddenly we had cornstalks. They bore a few ears: we ate some, and the rest dried and shelled out nicely.  

Sometimes, though, I have to accept the plant’s idea of placement. I dropped a potted Lady Banks’ rose by the driveway and forgot it for a month. It grew through its pot and now blooms at my second-story kitchen window. Hummingbirds and bushtits nest in it. 

My garden’s no better organized than my wardrobe, but cultivating surprise is so pleasant I’ll call it a talent.