The Dirt: Serendipity

A mass of bee balm 2 feet tall grows on the bank beside the driveway. For the life of me I can’t remember planting it there. Generally I don’t plant bee balm because of the powdery mildew it gets (at least in my yard), but this stand is healthy, vibrant, taking-over-the-bank bee balm. I can see it from my kitchen window. The red blooms are stunning, startling almost, and the hummingbirds love them.

It’s the balm: The author’s growing stand of bee balm, rescued from a roadside ditch. Photo By Cinthia Milner

I was studying it when my husband walked up after weeding the azaleas.

“Did you buy that bee balm and plant it here?” I asked him. I already knew he hadn’t; it was a rhetorical question. He sticks to the vegetables, grapevines, orchard trees and berry bushes. I buy all the annuals, perennials, ornamental shrubs and the like. He said nothing, giving me one of his looks that means “roadside digging.”

“You think?” I said, completely delighted. “What a treat! I bet I got this when I was digging up that pink columbine on the road to Marshall.”

My husband has his own thoughts about pulling a car over in the middle of traffic to start digging in some adjacent field or bank, but I could tell he was pleased enough about the bee balm. He was pacing it off.

“About 5 feet,” he called over to me.

“Wow, who knew?” I said, basking in my find while trying to avoid a conversation about my gardening methods. The columbine was nowhere to be seen.

Roadside digging is one of my favorite ways to accumulate plants. I’ve acquired spiderwort, pink and red tea roses, phlox (or “rock flowers,” as my grandmother called them), irises, sweet peas (white ones), flame azaleas (hard to dig up, but well worth it) and now, it seems, bee balm—to mention but a few.

If you’re interested, here are a few rules for roadside digging. First, stick to back roads. Although I’ve pulled over on Patton Avenue, I don’t recommend it. People honk their horns and say very ugly things as you’re trying to dig up a tea rose before the construction crew buries it.

Second, make it a day trip. Plan out a route and be sure to take a shovel, trowel, spade, strong pruners (for the bittersweet and thorns), plant trays, boxes and buckets of water (with lids). By necessity, you dig up the plants while they’re in bloom (you wouldn’t find them otherwise), so careful digging is required. Depending on the plant, you must dig at least a foot or two around it and as far down as you can. In other words, you want to capture as much dirt as possible along with the plant. That said, bring lots of good, black potting soil to pack around it in the trays or boxes. Oh, and put a blanket or something under all this, or you’ll wind up with dirt in places no car vacuum can reach.

Third, back roads are wonderful places to find old farmhouses and vacant lots with amazing perennials—but always, always ask. I try to find a neighbor or someone close by and ask if they mind. In my experience, the nice thing is that they never do. A lady in Madison County invited me over to her iris bed after I’d finished with the irises in her father’s yard (he had passed away). I got irises in colors I’ve never seen in local nurseries or gardening catalogs. They’re in my iris bed today, and I am always tickled to show them off. It’s like finding treasure: You get a special thrill at the thought that you discovered it.

Finally, be on the lookout in your daily travels—develop eyes that can quickly search out roadside finds (which requires you to always keep the above-mentioned items on hand for unanticipated digging). If there’s a beautiful rosebush cascading down a bank that you drive by every day, start to look around and scope out the terrain. Does it belong to a particular house, or is it a stray growing along the road? (Strays are free game, I say.) Does it belong to an abandoned lot? Or, worse, has the house been sold to commercial developers, spelling a death sentence for that glorious rosebush? Many times I’ve stopped and asked contractors if I could have a plant or shrub before they started smoothing away all traces of a garden. None has ever said no, and most have even helped me dig. They hate to see it go, too.

I’m still furious with myself for not having watched the signs of development more closely and consequently missing out on some spectacular Creamsicle-orange poppies, a perennial that’s absent from most nurseries these days but can still be found in many a grandmother’s yard. These beautiful flowers formerly graced a house site that’s now home to my local CVS pharmacy. Summer after summer, I watched the elderly lady who lived there tend them as I drove by on my daily runs. Then one day she was gone, and before I knew it I was sitting in my car watching a bulldozer, with one turn of the sod, unearth and destroy those poppies. I was miserable—and kicking myself for not having been prepared.

Now I am diligently looking for those same poppies in another grandmother’s yard. If you see them on one of your roadside jaunts, let me know. This time, I’ll be prepared—and who knows what else we’ll find?

[Cinthia Milner lives in Turkey Creek. Her plants come from all over.]

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