Garden Mystery and Magic
Last spring, after the leaf lettuce had matured but before it had started to bolt, I began to notice little purple seedlings sprouting in my vegetable beds. My garden, at the sunny back of a city lot in an old, tree-shaded neighborhood, consists of eight 4x8-foot double-dug raised beds where I grow peppers, beans, and cucumbers, a variety of herbs, and as many tomato plants as I can squeeze into the available space. I’ve worked in this soil enough years to know every weed, sprout, and stray seedling in it.
So when something new and unexpected pops up—like these little seedlings, such a rich shade of purple, so perfectly healthy, and so cute!—I take it as a challenge. What were these things? And where did they come from?
My library of gardening books offered no clues, nor did the vast reaches of the internet. “Smooth purple leaves sprout,” “purple dicot seedlings”—I never found the right combination of words that would Google up a picture of what I had. Meanwhile, they continued to spring up, and there were dozens of them. Hundreds, spread nicely across the surface of the smooth soil.
Unfortunately, they were growing in the very soil that I had made ready for the cucumbers and peppers. The two-leaved seedlings turned into sturdy six-leaved plants, but whatever they were, they were in the way of real produce. They had to go.
Well, not all of them. In one out-of-the-way corner of one of the beds, I left one sturdy seedling, just to see what it would do. I love a good mystery.
Every summer for the past few years, we have subscribed to a local farm co-op service to buy produce we can’t grow in our own backyard. Each week they e-mail a list of what’s available, we choose what we want from the list and pick it up at a nearby church parking lot later that week. Every third week or so we splurge a little, and bring home a big armful of cut flowers.
The makeup of the bouquet changes with what’s blooming in the farmer’s garden, but about midsummer, when the bright sunflowers are at their peak, the mix begins to include an array of large, interesting and unusual things. I bring the bouquet home and fill two or three vases with colorful arrangements that last for several days. Then, when the flowers drop and fade, I take it all out to the compost. Dust to dust.
If you do it right, compost is supposed to get hot enough that any seeds that get tossed in don’t survive. You have to have the right ratio of goopy to dry stuff for it to “cook” properly.
I’ve always known this; yet, I have a que sera sera relationship with my compost bin. The bin, a big barrel made out of recycled plastic, hulks at the back corner of the garden, near the raised beds. Every few days I throw in a bunch of kitchen scraps. Sometimes I remember to add some dry leaves. Turning the brew seems like too much trouble, even though I have a special tool just for that, so it rarely happens. In spite of my negligence, I can usually lift up the door at the bottom of the bin and scoop out a couple of buckets full of finished compost when I need it.
I needed it in the fall, when the soil in one or two of the beds seemed to want a little boost. I scooped out several five-gallon buckets full of compost and poured them over two or three of the raised beds. I forked it in and raked the beds smooth, then left them to rest for the winter. I closed down the garden, happy to know that the fluffy beds would be ready to plant without effort the next spring. At the time, the internal heat of compost was the farthest thing from my mind.
By early last summer, the cucumber vines had twined up the trellis and were producing more than enough cukes for salads and pickles, and the pepper plants’ blooms were fading and leaving tiny, perfect bell peppers. We’d picked and eaten two baskets full of Blue Lake beans. Better Boy tomatoes were the size of marbles, but they were coming on strong. Over in the corner of that one bed, the purple thing, whatever it was, was growing stout and robust.
My friend Natalie came over and we poured glasses of wine and walked out back to the garden. She admired the daisies and the coreopsis, the spreading mats of thyme, the fragrant rosemary. We circled the tomato beds and picked a few beans.
Then we walked around the cucumber and pepper bed and I pointed to the purple thing growing in the corner, now about a foot tall.
“You have any idea what that is?”
She stooped closer and squinted to get a better look. “Well, yeah. Maybe. It looks like that purple coleus, don’t you think?”
I’d considered that, but something about it didn’t fit the coleus picture I have in my head. Something about the leaves was wrong. It had a different kind of stem.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “But whatever it is, I had a whole bed of it coming up this spring. I hated to dig it up, but they were in the way.” I thought about the hundreds of perky purple seedlings I had uprooted and thrown away. “I can’t imagine where they came from.”
“Interesting,” she murmured, and took a sip from her glass. The mysteries of a garden, it must be said, can leave you speechless.
My friend Steve—gardener, beekeeper, country boy in the city—tends the lawns of several of our neighbors, and even though he only looks at and comments on ours, we frequently share garden questions and concerns. As summer reached its peak, I took him back to the garden and pointed to the purple thing, which had shot to about five feet and whose reddish-purple foliage stood in stark contrast to the green peppers and cucumbers that shared the bed. It was also now putting up some kind of shaggy purple new growth. He didn’t miss a beat.
“That’s amaranth,” he said. “You know, the grain. It’s supposed to be good for you.”
Amaranth. Of course. I’d read about it in health food literature. Its seeds are full of good things like lysine, calcium, iron and fiber, and tasty, too. But it’s wild-looking. I thought about my near neighbors’ manicured gardens and small, tidy patches of earth. No one nearby would have planted something so bold and unruly, something whose seeds might have blown onto my soil. Amaranth. What a nice surprise.
By early fall, when I finally cut it down, it had topped six feet and was stocky as a shrub. Large, beautiful, purple seed-bearing plumes swayed in the breeze. And to think I could have had a whole bed of it.
But where did it come from?
Gardeners tend to believe the only good thing about January is the arrival of garden catalogs. Mine came right on time, and I sat down by the fire on a cold afternoon to flip through one of my favorites. Right there on page 10 was a picture of amaranth, looking exactly as it did in my garden last summer—wild and lovely, “regal in the garden,” as described by the blurb writers.
There was a second picture, dozens of purple plumes standing tall under a blue sky. And something about that picture tipped a trigger and set off a sequence of events in my memory that got me to the Ah-ha! moment:
A big bouquet from the farm folks is made up of sunflowers, celosia, zinnias—and plumes of purple amaranth. The amaranth, especially, lasts quite a long time in the bouquet, but then everything fades and I chuck it all into the compost. Forward several months, maybe a year: The raised beds need replenishing, so I dig out enough compost to top off one of the beds, shovel it in, and rake it smooth—evenly distributing the unseen seeds of amaranth preserved in my cold compost. Next spring, the seeds do what seeds will do when it’s time: they sprout.
Mystery solved. I had seen the cycle complete itself. And this, I like to remember, is the sweet reward for keeping a garden: With each spring, a new beginning; at every turn, a surprise.
Gloria Ballard lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she enjoyed a long career in journalism before leaving the newspaper business to become a freelance writer. She leads writing workshops, grows a garden, and answers gardening questions in her weekly column, The Garden Club, which is published each Saturday in The Tennessean.
© Gloria Ballard