The Accidental Gardener: A Short Story About a Dog Named Oli and His Wondrous Wildflower Walk…

July 9th, 2010 § 7 comments

The Wildflower Walk in July at Ferncliff ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

As a professional garden designer, I take a certain amount of pride in my work. My clients always seem quite pleased with the gardens I create, and I think I’m a pretty good designer. Yet every July I am served a very large dish of my favorite dessert – humble pie. In midsummer, visitors to my studio are invariably knocked-out by the entry garden, which I now call ‘The Wildflower Walk’. They ooh and they ah and they coo over the wide swaths of bright color and the natural feel of this welcoming, open space. “What a beautiful garden”, they exclaim. And yes, I have to admit, it certainly is quite stunning. But, thanks to the brilliant artist I live with, my ego remains fully in check. Why? Well, you see, I didn’t design this gorgeous wildflower garden – my dog Oli did.

I know. You’re probably wondering how this is possible. How can a Labrador Retriever design a wildflower garden? Perhaps you think I am exaggerating or maybe even making it up from thin air. Or worse, you might be wondering if I’ve gone quite mad, since clearly I am suffering from delusions. But I swear –on my Vegetable Gardener’s Bible — it is true. In fact, not only did my crazy canine design this garden, but he also planted it all by himself. Yes, I promise I will explain – but first, let me back up a little bit and tell you the story of my dog, Oli…

Midway Point on the Wildflower Walk at Ferncliff in July ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

It was late in the summer of 2002, and I’d just finished building the studio-barn I now call home. There were no gardens here back then. In fact, the land was quite raw and, like most construction sites, it was a mess. I knew it would be a year before I could begin work on my landscaping projects and –frustrated with the ugliness– I spent most of my free time elsewhere. I’m an avid kayaker, and throughout that first summer, I floated my evenings away on local lakes and rivers. Late one August afternoon –hot, sticky and harried– I loaded my kayak on the car and headed out to the Connecticut River. Distracted as usual, in my haste I forgot my backpack at home. I didn’t want to miss sunset on the water, so I stopped by a local farm stand to grab a snack and a drink to take along on my paddle. Fate however, had other plans for me  –and indeed she moves in mysterious ways– because that’s when I met “Old Yeller”, as he was then called; a dirty, flea-infested, one-year-old, retriever pup with sad eyes and a ‘toy’ beer can. “Yeller” was chained to a foundation post and his legs were all tangled up in rusty links. Immediately a large crack –likely audible throughout the valley– split straight through my ribcage and broke my heart. Of course I thought about the dog the entire time I was out on the river, and the next day I stopped by the stand once again. He was still there; same beer can, same sad eyes. By visit three, my weakness must have been plainly visible, for the farm hand –three sheets to the wind– announced that the “flea bag” was headed to the pound by the end of the week. “If  you want him, take him” he said, “for free“.  It seemed that the wild pup had already worked his way through three homes, and his current owner –recently disabled from a stroke– could no longer handle him…

My dog Oli, in the studio…

Well, you know how this part of the story goes. Of course, by Friday, the wiggling, slobbering “flea bag” –renamed Oli– was bouncing around the back of my car on the way to his new home. He was, to put it mildly, a terror. Have you seen the film “Marley and Me ? Well, good for you, because I can’t watch more than 20 minutes of it. It’s just too close for comfort. And besides, my dog Oli, makes that dog Marley look like a saint. I kid you not. During his first year in my formerly-peaceful life, Oli did more damage than an F1 tornado. Goodbye car interior (including all back seatbelts and cushions), so-long sexy shoes, see-ya-later kayak seat and farewell furniture. Left alone for more than five minutes, Oli would rip through and devour anything in sight. His ingested-item list even includes a Mikimoto pearl necklace (yes, in its box, pulled from the top of my dresser), and we made more visits to the veterinarian than I care to remember. I was told by dog-loving friends that this behavior would ease up within a year. I was promised this was merely a prolonged puppy phase. I was advised that he had separation anxiety and that training would help. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Oli continued his reign of terror straight through the following summer, when I began working on my new gardens. Unimpressed with my horticultural pursuits, Oli uprooted perennials as fast as I planted them and devoured several young shrubs. He even stripped the branches from a rare Japanese maple, defoliating and destroying it within minutes, while I unloaded groceries in the kitchen. Yes, I still love him, but I would be lying if I told you that I never had a dark thought about my dog.

A bag of collected Lupine seed…

Around this time, I started thinking about planting a wildflower meadow on the west side of my clearing. My parents had created an impressive, self-sustaining field of wildflowers on their property, which bloomed from spring to fall, and I wanted to replicate that here. My father collected seed from the garden, and gave me two bags to take home. One contained pouches of Lupine and Adenophora, and the other was filled with Rudbeckia hirta. When I got back to my place, I brought one bag of seed up to the house, let Oli out of his crate, and started to unload the rest of my car. Then, the phone rang. You would think that I would have learned my lesson after the Japanese maple fiasco – but no. Of course not. Finally, at some point during my telephone conversation, I looked out the window to see Oli running full boar down the walkway – brown paper bag held high, head shaking to-and-fro, black seed spewing out in all directions. My scream could have stopped a train dead in its tracks, but it didn’t even register with Oli. He only seemed to run faster. I tore down the pathway after my wild dog, chasing him in circles ’round the ledge at the top of the drive – but it was too late. The bag of Rudbeckia was scattered everywhere – all over the walkway and throughout my carefully designed entry garden…

Rudbeckia hirta, in a design by Oli, the accidental gardener…

Eight years have come and gone since Oli hopped into my car on that fateful, hot summer evening, and I have given in to his chaos on many levels. Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them I say. So, I added more wildflower seed to his design; sprinkling Lupine and Adenophora throughout the walkway and into the surrounding mixed borders. What can I say – it works. And yes, he’s a genius. But athough he may be talented, Oli –now growing fat and grizzled about the muzzle — can still never be left alone in the house…

Oli and Me

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Article and photographs © 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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§ 7 Responses to The Accidental Gardener: A Short Story About a Dog Named Oli and His Wondrous Wildflower Walk…"

  • Lynda S says:

    Thank you for sharing this… it brought tears to my eyes! I’m so glad you saved him in spite of himself! I am a confirmed dog lover and drove 500 miles, round trip on a Wednesday night, to get my most recent friend Buddy.

    Oh, and Oli did an awesome job planting for you. What talent! ;D

  • Michaela says:

    Thanks Lynda ♥ Good luck with your new BF Buddy – I know he’s a lucky dog ! I just told Oli that you like his garden. I can tell he appreciates the compliment! xo M

  • Jen says:

    Those pink dog noses?… They always mean trouble. :-) Funny story.

  • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Oh Michaela, Good on y’ Girl! What a lucky dog he is that you’re as determined as you are. Now I’ve got Amanda Marshall’s “Everybody’s Got a Story That Could Break Your Heart” running through my head…
    Oli’s garden, from what I can see in the photos, seems to share the same characteristics as its creator: bright and cheerful, wild and free spirited and completely, totally beautiful. Deb xo

  • elin says:

    That’s you – always looking on the bright side!:-)

  • Charlene says:

    You should submit this for publication. Delightful. Would love to hear more about your parent’s wildflower meadow.

  • Michaela says:

    Thank you for the sweet words Deb and Elin, but like I say… I do occasionally have dark (and quite Tim Burtonesque) thoughts… particularly about Oli ! I’m glad to hear that I still come across as somewhat sunny ;)

    And Charlene, thank you for the lovely compliment. I have no idea of who would be interested in publishing my goofiness, but if you has any brilliant bolts-from-the-blue, please let me know. My parent’s wildflower meadow was extraordinary. They were experts at turning their poor soil and limited budget to their advantage. I’m sure to mention them -and their wildflowers- again in the not-to-distant future ;)

    Thank you all for your enthusiastic response to the story of Oli and his wildflower walk !

    xo M

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