The sweet summery fragrance is both familiar and elusive. It grows stronger with every step we take on the well worn path to our garden. When we arrive at our familiar garden site an explosion of butterfly activity in our now overgrown asparagus patch alerts us to something new, something exciting. With every step the enticing perfume grows stronger. “Asparagus never smelled so good”, I remark to Jane, as we get closer to the source. Then she spots a butterfly rising and flitting to another flower.
“There it is !” she exclaims, pointing to large blooms in the asparagus. Hidden and disguised amongst the three foot tall stalks of mature July asparagus, nestled in there as if planted is a thriving patch of milkweed.
We stand mesmerized for a moment watching the steady stream of butterflies, mostly Monarchs, patiently waiting their turn to light on the fragrant milkweed blossoms and drink of the nectar.
Suddenly flashing in my mind are childhood memories of milkweed growing wild beside the corn field near our home in an area just wild enough, just rough enough that the grass never got cut there. That same smell, as if my nose could reach back 50 years and remember clearly every single detail. A hidden haven for Monarch butterflies, Tiger Swallowtails and more that I could not identify at the time.
This was worth preserving, protecting and nurturing. “What if we left the Milkweed to propogate in the asparagus patch? ” I asked Jane. She readily agreed as her love of flowers and all that they add to a garden won her over too.
Upon further inspection over a period of a couple years we did not notice a decline in asparagus production when we started encouraging the milkweed to also grow in the same bed. It did not seem to be a competitor. In fact, it looked like a very interesting twist on the popular garden concept known as companion planting. The milkweed was even strong enough to break through the straw mulch covering the asparagus.
A flower bed mixed in with a food crop like asparagus? Why not.
So began our strange and wonderful exploration of wild plants (essentially weeds) in and around the garden. These wild invaders were not only left alone, but encouraged and cultivated.
In the fall we gathered the ripe and opening milkweed seed pods and carefully pulled away small areas of the straw mulch in the asparagus bed and planted them there on purpose. The results were nothing short of amazing. The next year the entire bed was a mixed delight of asparagus and milkweed with that now familiar fragrance enveloping the entire garden area.
That was four years ago now and the area with milkweed keeps expanding, although kept in check as to not invade the entire garden. We think the milkweed has come to accept this little favoured spot in our garden, in our lives, even accepting its new neighbour, asparagus.
After watching a TV special on the declining population of Monarch butterflies and their specially adapted food source, the Milkweed, we feel good about the place it takes on our property.
We have since started planting patches of Milkweed in areas around the outside of the garden with good success. Anywhere we keep brush trimmed such as on our main trail leading to the garden is a great spot for Milkweed.
This next one is perhaps hard to believe, but nonetheless very true. Our second wild plant invader arrived via a trailer load of well rotted cow manure we brought home from a neighbor’s farm. Actually, it began long before, nearly 30 years ago when we cleared our first garden.
With a weed wacker and chainsaw we were clearing an overgrown area of weeds and small brush. It was an ambitious project carving out a half acre garden from our 20 acre wilderness home. We chose the site carefully, being near the stream and water but not flooded in summer. Great soil spelled a profusion of tall weeds, and underbrush growing in profusion.
It took weeks to clear by hand. As we were nearing an end to the hard work we suddenly stepped into a small cleared area we had not seen before, right in the middle of our marked off, proposed garden site. It was a small oasis handily protected by the largest Canada thistle we had ever seen. Right in the middle of all of the confusion of clearing sat a Goldfinch patiently pulling fluffy seeds from the mature thistle blooms and eating them. Then another finch and another joined the feast. That decided it, the thistle would stay in the garden.
We worked around the area clearing grass and weeds and putting them on now giant compost heaps.
Thistles are known as reclaimer plants. When an area is burned or overgrazed by animals either wild or domestic, thistle will grow there until larger trees claim all of the sunlight from above. This one looked to have been there for years towering over seven feet tall. It lived in that spot for many years until an extremely wet spring one year saw it produce seed for the very last time. Then it was gone, having done its job of reclaiming the land once again and a place in our hearts too.
“Who would keep thistles in their heart?” , some would ask. Only those people who have seen the beauty of a finch eating seeds perched high above the ground daring any critter brave enough to try and challenge the thistle and catch that bird. A perfect match as is so often the case, just as God created it. We have only to see the simplicity in creation to know real joy in our lives.
Getting back to that trailer load of manure, there was a gift of thistle seeds hidden away in the well rotted depths. The next summer we noticed thistles growing in an area where a few shovel fulls of manure had fallen off the trailer just outside the garden. We let them grow where they were. Now, with every passing summer day we hear the polite chirping of hungry goldfinches chattering their happy song while devouring their fill of thistle seeds and know we have done good just by leaving it alone.