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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Jul 13

The Element of Surprise

Posted on July 13, 2018 at 11:00 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Have you ever walked into your garden and found a bit of vegetation emerging that you know you didn’t plant? I am not talking about a weed. (Okay, I will give you that one since by definition any unwanted plant is a weed.) I am talking about a little greenery growing in an obscure part of the garden, or the fuzzy leaf that drives your curiosity to allow it to grow. Surely I am not the only inquisitive gardener who wants to see the results of these self-sown seeds? 

Twice this summer I’ve been enthralled by these elements of surprise. Allowing these plants to grow has led to two unexpected and polar opposite results. 

pansyWhile sweeping around the hot tub, I noted an intense purple flower off the back side of the deck. There, within the confines of the boulders beneath the deck, grew the perfect pansy. This plant is thriving on its own in the shade of a large tree and without much in the way of nutrients … at least, none that I can see or assisted with providing! Over the years, duff from the tree above apparently settled into the crevices of the native boulders, and time has turned that duff into a growing medium rich enough to support this little treasure.

The other surprise came in the form of what I assumed to be a native plant growing in front of the four-foot-tall birdbath that provides a focal point for the living room windows. The gray-green fuzzy leaves seemed demure at the beginning of spring. However, the plant was soon growing at warp speed. I felt as if I were watching a “Jack and the Beanstalk” cartoon. This mystery plant is now well over six feet tall and creating a new focal point completely blocking the view of the birdbath from the house.

mystery plantI had no clue what was growing. Even with poring over my extensive library, checking the Calscape website, and throwing out pictures to friends who know their native plants, the mystery plant remained just that—a mystery. It took a retired MMWD plant aficionado to come back with the answer. Can I stump the stars of this blog and challenge you to identify this beauty? (Hint: It is not a native after all.) Stay tuned next week for the answer.

Current gardening trends seem to encourage a freedom to mix plants up. Clovers and daisies mixed with lawn grasses are frequently found on landscape websites. Formal clipped hedges are allowed to grow freeform. Meadows, rain gardens and wildflower gardens add an element of surprise as seeds are carried to other parts of the garden by birds and the winds. This is an exercise in restraint if you are willing to allow the garden to naturalize. One major plus is less water will be needed and, depending on your tolerance, less maintenance. How many of you can rise to the challenge and let it grow? I can promise some delightful surprises … not to mention puzzles to solve!


Anonymous User
July 13, 2018 at 12:40 PM
II am not sure of the spelling but it is Mullein. It grows prolifically in the Mt Lassen area
Anonymous User
July 13, 2018 at 12:41 PM
Looks like Mullein, perhaps Verbascum thapsus Dave Long
Anonymous User
July 13, 2018 at 9:24 PM
Verbascum sp I think. (Mullein)
Anonymous User
July 13, 2018 at 9:27 PM
Verbascums are tough , probably circumpolar plants. Have been known to arise out of coal slag heaps. Annie’s Annuals carries several ornamental cultivars.

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