Choose Your Own Adventure

npOM2EqI’ve been thinking about violas.

We called them “johnny jump ups,” and they were the first things I ever learned to plant.  I must have been  eight or ten, because I was old enough to be given my own little patch of garden, but the patch was in front of the house that we left when I was eleven.  My mother had bought a flat of viola seedlings for herself, and she designated some for me.  I dug some holes and stuck the violas in the ground.

And there they stayed.  I don’t remember watering them or feeding them or deadheading them or weeding the patch.  Maybe my mother did these things, but she was the sort of mother who expected me to take care of my own tasks or face the natural consequences of my neglect.  I do remember the flowers being there all summer long, their cheerful little purple faces never reproaching me.

Gardens didn’t mean a lot.  I lived just metres away from a field of deciduous trees, overgrown with lady slippers, forget-me-nots and wild strawberries.  This was far more interesting than a tended patch of yard.  I passed through the field almost every day, on my way to and from the nearest corner store – we called it “the little store” – or because a friend and I decided to go play “adventure.”  It wasn’t possible to have an “adventure” on the lawn.  You had “adventures” in spots where you might come across anything at all, buried under the grass or hidden behind a pincherry tree.

In my memory, when my friends and I went to play in that field, or when I walked through it to “the little store” to buy Hickory Sticks or cigarettes for my parents, no one else was ever there.  Sometimes there was a sign that someone HAD been there.  We occasionally found an abandoned baseball or a crushed candy wrapper.  Once we discovered a rain-battered pile of porn magazines.  But in the six years I spent playing in that field, I don’t remember ever running into a person who hadn’t come there with me.

Now I live in the middle of the city.  There are parks.  I’m near the St. Lawrence River, and can walk along it for miles in relative quiet if I want to, surrounded by trees and bicycle paths.  But: “relative quiet.”  Someone always comes along.  I never know who that someone might be.  This kind of adventure does not appeal to me.

However, I also have a house with a tiny yard in front, and another tiny yard in back.  No one else can come into these yards if I don’t invite them.  This spring will be the first I spend in this house, and I have no idea what might pop out of the earth, what I might find snuggled under the hostas or behind the two dwarf spruce.

Beyond those surprises, I get to choose my own adventure.  I’ve purchased an abundance of seed packets.  They’re mostly vegetables, but there are also some flowers: cosmos, nasturtiums, poached-egg plants, rudbeckia.  I don’t really know what will happen when I put them in the ground.  This is all new to me.

Only after I’d placed my seed orders did I think of violas.  There’s plenty of time – we had a two-foot snowfall today, so the garden’s in no hurry; I could pick up some seeds or seedlings when it’s possible to actually plant something.  But I feel little to no inclination to buy violas.  They were fine, but not as fat and velvety as pansies, not as sweet and wistful as forget-me-nots, not as shocking as bleeding hearts.  Maybe, once I’ve seen the garden go through its first cycle, I’ll notice a spot under the birch or along the fence where violas would be perfect next year.  For now, when there are so many things to grow, why would I choose something I’ve already planted?

I am not, nor have I ever been, sentimental.  When those first violas finally died, I didn’t feel sad; there were too many horsechestnuts to smash and too many crabapples to pick.  I didn’t know that the day would come when I would search my whole new city for an empty, lonely field full of wildflowers, and discover that there is no longer any such thing.

Luckily, I have a spot where I can build one myself.  Luckily, when it comes to growing a garden, even the things you choose yourself are bound to be full of surprises.


This post was written in response to a prompt from Gayla Trail.  Gayla is sponsoring “The Grow Write Guild” on her excellent gardening site You Grow Girl.

Image by Lekki

42 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Adventure

  1. Lovely post. I don’t remember flowers as a child. The only ones I remember are when making dandelion necklaces or the ones we put in mud stew with grass, leaves and anything else we could find.

    • I would not have even thought of these violas if it hadn’t been for Gayla’s prompt – gardening was not a big interest of mine when I was a kid. These days, it’s almost all I think about!

  2. Hello-
    I have an affinity for violas/violets. My Great-grandmother, a sophisticated woman who lived deep in the country, was named Viola. The main reason I love the flowers though is that they are medicinal and edible! I also love seeing recipes for candied violets which look beautiful with baked goods. (Look at this cake! :
    Best of luck in the garden this year. I can’t imagine gardening as far north as you!

    • Sarah: That cake is incredible!
      I’ve never minded our long winters, but since I’ve started planning my garden I’ve found the winter AGONIZING. We’re hoping today’s massive snowfall is the last of the season…

  3. Siobhan, it sounds like a wonderful place to grow up next to! I know what you mean about not thinking about something until someone tickles your memory. It’s nice to know these things still reside in our brains somewhere. 😉

    • I always find writing an amazing tool that way. Lynda Barry has a great book called What It Is that provides all sorts of exercises in tapping into memories through writing – I’m always astonished by what comes up.

  4. Lovely story! I hope your new garden treats you to some wonderful surprises. Johnny Jump Ups were a favorite of my grandmother, but I never grew them until recently. There’s a gorgeous photo of Tasha Tudor’s strain of them in the book “Tasha Tudor’s Garden” that made me want to run right out and put some in my yard.

    • Thanks Lauren! I’m a bit worried that the biggest surprise my garden will bring will be the amount of devastation the raccoons can wreak on the vegetables. That said, I’m looking forward to it all! Good luck with your adventures too.

  5. I love your story! I forgot about the meadow I had across the street and the other pockets of wild suburbia until I read this. Maybe nobody but mother nature planted these spots, but it’s still a magical garden. They are hard to find these days, especially those spots where you can spend hours and see nobody!

    • Yes, I’d forgotten about this meadow until I started writing the post! It’s amazing what the acts of reading and writing can pull up from the depths of memory…thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. The field in your childhood sounds wonderful! Wild strawberries…an absolute dream.
    This is also our fist year in this house, and there is a lot of work to be done (with the exception of the rose buses). I’ve been experimenting a bit and have already had quite a lot of success with nasturtiums. Good luck!

    • I have a packet of nasturtium seeds just waiting for me! Unfortunately, there is still a shocking amount of snow on the ground, but today is warmish and sunny, so I’m seeing a real spring around the corner…Thanks for reading!

  7. I have always like violas a bit better than pansies, just because they were less drama queen. Hmmm…I think I will have to pick up a packet of viola seeds to sprinkle out this spring, I just realized there aren’t any at this house.

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. I loved your post – in the few years I spent on a farm, I had much the same experience. I planted a small section of garden as my parents instructed me to do. Then I went and wandered through the bush with my brother and built forts. I don’t remember ever tending my garden, but I’m sure I did. 🙂

  9. thank you for your comment, it means a lot as i feel nervous about my writing skills. we had a park next to my house, and lots of nooks and crannies of wild, and cultivated area to explore in my suburban neighborhood. i still remember picking huge round grapes off my neighbors’ vines overhanging the street on my walks home from school. i worry about kids who will grow up without any connection to the wild/nature around them.

    • Gawkylu: Me too – my students who have lived in the city all their lives seem truly deprived to me in some ways. That said, growing up I would have done anything to have a big movie theatre or museum to go to…maybe there’s a balance to be struck? Thanks for reading!

  10. I love the idea of gardening as a Choose Your Own Adventure. I used to stick all my fingers in the pages, so I could go back and take the other path–I guess I’ve always been the sort to want to keep all my options open. Gardens insist that you choose a path and see it through the growing season, though, and the only way to take the other path is to start the adventure over again the following spring. Here’s hoping your adventure works out beautifully!

    • True – although even in starting my seedlings I’ve found myself going down a certain path and then thinking, “Hmmm, this doesn’t seem to be germinating; let me try something else…” The adventure never ends! Thanks for your comment.

  11. Violas are gorgeous! I didn’t know they were called “Johnny Jump Ups” – I’ve heard of JJU’s before, but didn’t connect them with violas before.

    This is a great story, and I resonated with so much of it. So you used to buy hickory sticks at the store on cigarette errands for your parents too, huh? 🙂 I also didn’t get into gardening much as a kid, or even as an adult until the past few years, and only this year have I started anything indoor from seed. Fingers crossed!

    • Michelle: This year is my first real gardening adventure – we just bought a new house, and I am so excited to have a yard. We don’t have great soil, and we also have a lot of critters (raccoons, squirrels, MANY stray cats in addition to our own) so the vegetable garden will begin in containers. I’m obsessed with my seedlings – I was home on spring break this past week and found myself checking on them every couple of hours. The whole project is so exciting – now if only the snow in Montreal would go away…

  12. The ending of this reflection makes me sad. I wish there were so many more green spaces, more patches of wildflowers, more patches of forest. Instead we tear them out to make cookie cutter subdivisions. Then we curse in our cookie cutter houses when the soil is all clay and we can’t grow anything because when we ripped out the forest, the nutrients left the soil too. And if, after years of tender loving care, we finally have some soil that is worth anything, our cities and towns make bylaws that state we are not allowed to use our front lawns to grow food to nourish ourselves. How dare we feed ourselves and allow the neighbours to see? So they rip those up too.

    I had a conversation with friends about this. My husband and an architect friend both stated that they would not be surprised if, in our lives, we see that the supermarkets and super malls and empty subdivisions are ripped up in order to plant farmer’s fields once more. I would not be surprised.

  13. Great story…it’s so amusing to see the beginnings of a gardener. Adventure in the garden isn’t something I discovered til I was older as well, but now I discover lots of surprises, even in things I decide to plant myself! I’ve got a little flat of violas (my first time planting them) just waiting to go in the ground when spring finally gets here…

  14. I love purple and yellow faced johnny jump ups! They’re a little secret suprise, tiny little flowers that handle themselves well. Thanks for visiting my blog and sharing yours!

  15. Very nice story! I’ve always thought of johnny jump ups as pansies’ smaller cousins. My mom and I planted pansies every summer. I guess I could have written about that, if I hadn’t had my mind stuck on vegetables.
    Don’t you love the adventure of discovering what plants will pop up the first spring you’re living in a new house? I hope you find some nice surprises.

    • I’m already so excited – some bulbs are sprouting through the snow in the front yard and I have no idea what they are! I’ve also been obsessed with my seedlings; I sowed a pot of spinach and a pot of rapini over the weekend, and one is germinating, but I forgot to label them so it will be a while before I know which it is. Thanks for reading!

  16. It was great to get your comment on – one of the pleasant surprises of blogging is the serendipitous “meetings” that can take place. You say you live “on the St. Lawrence River” which makes me curious if you are in Quebec City, or elsewhere on the SLR.

    While tulips were an inheritance from my mom, pansies were always one of my father’s favorites. Our home is quite shaded, so pansies rarely did very well, but I do remember we often tried them, for his sake.

      • Got it. As you probably could tell from my blog, I’m just upstream in QC. We were out in the woods north of the city for the long weekend – three days snowshoeing in the Vallée Bras-du-Nord. There is still a remarkable amount of snow up in the hills. After three days in snow pants, I was amazed to see nothing left but a couple patches of snow around our apartment…AND THE FIRST CROCUS of the year!!! Happy Spring to you.

  17. I love the way you responded to this prompt — specifically the way you talk about surprises and adventures. Yes! They are as wonderful — even more wonderful — than the crops we grow from our carefully planned seed lists.

    Enjoy your first spring in your new home and garden.

    (PS. I’m biased and sentimental but I think there’s a place for violas in every garden. Perhaps instead of “Johnny Jump Ups” you might want to try Viola cornuta?)

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