Last summer, I tweeted about the forget-me-nots that my former neighbor Lorelle dug up from her own yard and gave me after I admired them. Such a cheery, sunny flower. No matter how discouraging my day, the tiny, prolific, sky-blue blossoms could always make me smile. A former colleague replied to my tweet: “Passalong plants are the best plants!”

In just the three summers I have gardened, I have both been plied with plants and have scavenged many from sidewalk giveaways. These freebies are a windfall given the unpromising ratio between my salary and the price of new plants. Beyond that, they’ve given a pleasantly higgledy-piggledy shape to my garden. The happy chance approach to garden design works as well for me, a new and clueless gardener, as any grand plan would.

As the holiday with gratitude baked right into its name approached, I began to compile a list of plants I have acquired through no effort, or expense, of my own:

Rhubarb. A doddle to care for, a joy to eat

Vinca, a twofer as a few spiderwort plants hitched a ride

Three varieties of mint, the gift that keeps on giving. But that’s OK: My cooking benefits from its aggression all summer long

Three lungwort plants, with merry polka-dot leaves that, like the forget-me-nots, spark joy

Two wild geraniums

Three rose bushes. Glass half empty: I killed the one I liked best. Glass half full: The other two survived! And they are prolific bloomers, which gave me deep red blossoms for bud vases all last summer.

A peony bush. “Light pink. Fragrant. Very hearty” read the cardboard ID that sat next to it on the sidewalk late this summer, where it looked the picture of health. I fear I have killed this, too. It looked droopy and shriveled in its new home in September, despite my frantic attempts to make it welcome. Next summer will tell.

Two Solomon’s seal. A find, as I had been looking to fill out my insufficient patch.

Despite me, these boltonia have thrived. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Two boltonia. I had no idea what these were, so I stuck them in an unpromising corner of the garden, more patch of hard, beige dirt than humus soil. But the unnamed plants I’d been given repaid my neglect with kindness, returning each summer in greater numbers to form a thriving patch of tall, graceful late-blooming flowers.

Bee balm. Beautiful bee balm from Kate. Her lush garden in Vermont could be in a magazine. The bee balm died almost instantly. Of sorrow that it was wrenched from its former paradise?

Two cleome, which I chanced upon on a neighborhood walk this summer. Love at first sight! They held their own in my garden, but not much more. I am hoping they reseeded themselves, and intend both to return next summer and to return my love by thriving.

Luscious bearded irises from a woman I met on a neighborhood website. She said they came from her mother’s garden in Ohio. Let me tell you, they are very happy to be living in Maine. And Siberian irises, which originated in the garden of my colleague Mary Pols’ late mother. This mom connection pleases me. My own mother was a terrific gardener, but my garden came too late to benefit from any of her castoffs. Mom plants help me to feel her energy in my garden nonetheless.

A neighbor gave away this peony bush to any taker. I was the taker, but by the fall, the poor bush was either in transplant shock or dead. I tried my best but … Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

I should mention that several of these freebies came from the same two people. There is a neighbor – I am ashamed to say I haven’t yet met him – who regularly puts out free plants on the sidewalk. His beautiful walkway is lined with lavender; it looks like it blew in from Provence. And judging by the gorgeous plants he gives away, his backyard garden must be incredible. Thank you, neighbor. I must have you over for coffee and cake this winter.

Then there is Maine Gardener columnist Tom Atwell, who got me started on this whole adventure with gifts of rhubarb and vinca. That is the least of it. He regularly supplies me with plant IDs and good advice. This past summer, he and his wife, Nancy, spent an entire morning pruning my neglected, overgrown lilacs. Generous does not begin to cover it. Thank you, Tom.

Free plants are just for starters, though. My garden inspires gratitude in so many ways.

Take the perennials, which mostly return on cue each year. My idea is that once I plant enough of them, I will be done in the garden and can spend my summers at the beach. What does my garden think of my plan? Ha!

Two summers ago, I planted a native perennial – swamp milkweed, and, as promised, it has attracted monarchs. Each and every butterfly I see stops me in my tracks. Stunning! Astounding! Amazing! (I could do without the millions of aphids that the milkweed also attracts, however.)

The gardeners who lived in my home before me also planted perennials, and bushes, too. We’ve never met, I don’t even know who they are beyond names on a deed, but the hostas, day lilies, bell flowers, two lilac trees and one rhododendron they planted over my home’s century of life contribute immeasurably to my domestic contentment.

My neighbor Matt mowed my lawn into a crop circle. Or perhaps it was aliens landing? Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

When I bought my home, my sister Susan advised me to be sure I had nice neighbors. You can change your house, she said, but you can’t change your neighbors. I lucked out with Matt and Jen, who are a steady presence in my garden, offering advice (Jen is skilled) and help (Matt can do and fix anything). They also have a sense of humor: Matt mows the lawn for me. One day this summer, without telling me, he mowed it in the shape of a crop circle. When I got home, I briefly thought I’d had visitors from outer space.

Speaking of good neighbors, may I introduce you to Simon, a good-looking, gregarious fellow with piercing blue eyes? Any time I am in the garden, he is sure to bound over to inspect my work. Simon – have I mentioned he is a cat? – also visits each day with the postwoman, the other neighbors, and each and every passerby. Kate Snyder may be the mayor-elect of Portland, but she will have to concede that Simon is the mayor of Riverview Street.

I am grateful for blossoms. Peony blossoms, morning glories, buttonball, bellflowers, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, clematis, columbine, lavender and lupine and … does this ever get old?

Compost. My strawberries. The sun and the rain …

In many respects, 2019 hasn’t been my favorite year. My country has lost its way. My planet is on the brink of environmental disaster, probably over the brink, and we seem to be fiddling while it burns, literally burns. My father died.

But even when I fail with flowers, my garden gives me hope and joy. On Thanksgiving, and on ordinary days, too, I am deeply grateful for it.

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