The birds, the bees and the sunflower seeds
Sometimes, letting nature do the planting
results in happy accidental gardens
In August, I planted peas for a fall crop, interspersing them amongst the sunflowers that provided shade from the late summer sun (peas don’t like heat) and also the support for their upward climb. But I didn’t plan it that way, and I didn’t plant the sunflowers. The birds did that for me.
In June, that part of the garden was still bare. I was going to plant pole beans, but first I needed to find some poles. I noticed the birds poking about in the bare soil and thought they must be finding bugs and weed seeds to eat. How convenient for me that they were serving as my pre-emergent weed killers.
But then a week or so later, I noticed sunflowers sprouting where the birds had been pecking. Our bird feeder is about 15 feet away, and we often find sunflowers growing just under it, but I didn’t expect the birds to bring the seeds to the bare spot in my garden and plant them there.
I thought about planting the beans anyway and letting them climb up the sunflower stems, but bean vines can get pretty heavy and I didn’t want to topple the sunflowers, so I just resigned myself to growing sunflowers in this part of the garden instead. Beans are cheap at the farmers’ market anyway, and the sunflowers are such a delight in the middle of the garden.
When the first of the sunflowers opened, I discovered a fat bumblebee enjoying the fruits (or pollen, more like) of the birds’ efforts. And, of course, the bumblebee is simply returning the favor, since her foraging will pollinate the flowers and allow them to make seeds for the birds. I’m happy to just be the spectator to it all.
This isn’t the first time I have enjoyed serendipitous sunflowers in my garden. I remember a tall gangly specimen that sprouted up in the flower bed at my last house, towering over the perennials like a May Day puppet. Eventually, the flowers turn into seedheads, nodding heavily with their bounty. Chickadees delight in the feast, making a lively scene as they hover, fluttering their wings wildly, to pluck a seed and then land in a nearby tree branch to eat it.
One time I saw a squirrel crouched on the fence, holding the sunflower seedhead like a hamburger in its paws, happily chowing down on the protein-rich feast.
But it isn’t always the wildlife that enjoys the fruit of the accidental gardens they plant. A mailman friend of mine told me that a mysterious vine sprouted in the middle of a yard on his route earlier this summer. The homeowner decided to let it grow, wondering aloud what it was and how it got there. “It was probably planted by a squirrel,” my friend offered.
Soon the man was winding the rampant vine around a tree, moving it out of the way as he mowed his lawn. Then my friend noticed a watermelon forming amid the sprawling leaves. Soon the watermelon was resting on the porch, still attached to the vine, apparently placed there by the homeowner for safekeeping. Then one day it was gone. “I guess they decided to eat it,” my friend said.
I am always happy to see common milkweed sprout up in my yard, knowing that it will provide food and a safe haven for the caterpillars of the monarch butterfly (milkweed is poisonous, and so the caterpillar that eats it is also poisonous, and the birds know this and leave the caterpillar alone). Does anyone plant this aggressive weed on purpose? I know I’ll be having to control it in subsequent summers, as it spreads by its vigorous underground runners. I consider it a small price to pay for the delight of seeing the butterflies fluttering through my back yard.
Perhaps you have walked past a yard where the lawn is spotted with small clumps of daisies, apparently allowed to flower by someone who took the trouble to mow around them. My mother used to let the daisies grow in her yard, and I’ve since noticed that quite a few others must have a soft spot for the cheery blossoms that plant themselves where they may.
When I want an ornamental vine to cover a boring wall or scramble up a tree that has grown bare with age, I don’t go to the garden center. Instead, I look for the inevitable volunteer—either a Virginia creeper or a wild grapevine, both native Minnesota plants that produce fruits for the birds, squirrels and chipmunks to feast on. I transplant a clump and soon I have a verdant covering for that bare spot.
The opportunistic gardener welcomes the serendipitous plantings that nature provides, relishing in the accidental gardens that often plant themselves with little or no interference from us, allowing us to stumble upon a bit of Eden, if only we are observant enough to recognize it and enjoy its bounty.