Photo courtesy Mary Henry: The Acer palmatum “Ukigumo” Japanese maple adds a sparkling focal point to a garden.
Photo courtesy Mary Henry: The Acer palmatum “Ukigumo” Japanese maple adds a sparkling focal point to a garden.

I confess, somewhat sheepishly, that I am an inveterate reader of my horoscope. A good pal got me addicted, saying, “It’s amazing how often it is spot on.” He was right. So, it’s early June, I flip open the paper, run my finger down to Leo and read: Today is a 9 [my lucky number]. Make the most of unexpected gifts. Your stars are due to align in complex and unexpected ways.

I blew through that and into my day, which included a visit to see a fellow gardener (social distancing observed) en route to other errands. There, in my friend’s garden, I spotted a Japanese maple I’d never seen, Acer palmatum “Ukigumo.” Wow! The thing caught any bit of light on that overcast day and made for a sparkling focal point in a tapestry of spring greens. I’d never seen this plant before. I raved, sincerely, then went on my way.

That evening there was a knock on my door. I fumbled to get myself together, then went to answer. Not a soul in sight, but there, in a 15-gallon nursery can, in the middle of my terrace, stood a 5-foot-tall A.P. “Okigumo.” Fully leafed out, it was as dazzling in the twilight as it had been in the late morning. Of course I was touched, overwhelmed by the unexpected gift. The horoscope had predicted it. The problem was, what to do with the thing in my over-planted, tiny Madison Park garden? A week passed while I fretted and kept the plant well watered. Then puttering around one morning, I looked at a spot in front of the 6-foot perimeter fence at the end of a walkway. I moved the plant in place. Perfect! So I planted it, always mindful of the horticultural admonishment: a million dollar planting hole for a $10 plant. No small trick, here. The tag on the gift tree said it had cost $145! Love having generous friends! 

That Japanese maple did what plants of its ilk are supposed to do. It lighted up that end of the garden. That, in turn, led me to prowl around in my gardening library and rediscover old treasures like George Schenk’s “The Complete Shade Gardener” and “The Natural Shade Garden,” by Ken Druse. Ken has an entire chapter on lighting with plants. Suddenly I found myself looking for hostas, any number of wonderful ferns, astilbe, even filipendula and surprisingly hardy fuchsias. How quickly we forget. The options were far more abundant than I have space for planting.
I was jazzed. With Yukon prospector’s zeal, I raced to Fred Meyer where I religiously prowl the sale table for neglected plants. I knew I’d find something.

Sure enough, there I found three sadly bedraggled Dryopteris affines “Crispa Gracilis.” Eureka! Reduced to only $1.75 each. I brought these prize ferns home, smugly telling them, as we drove out of the parking lot, “your Angel of Mercy has descended. You’ll be fine soon!” Once home, I filled the sink with water and soaked them over night. The next morning I groomed off all the dead foliage and took them out of the small, torture-chamber plastic pots in which they’d been suffering. I planted them, soaking the soil around them throughly, with the promise of continued attention through the summer and until they were established. Yes, I talk to plants.

Once established, I could not keep my eyes off the planting. There stood the stately, garden-illuminating new tree that would soon peek over the fence. Coming up around it, evergreen ferns that would stand 3 to 4 feet tall at the maple’s trunk, assorted hostas in cream and green and snaking around and through it all, fuchsias, astilbe and (oh, yes!) the big sprawling leaves of Rodgersia aesculifolia. I’d first seen the tropical-looking leaves of this perennial in its native Japan and always wanted to grow it. I figure it will be quite happy in the dappled light of its kindred spirit.  

That’s when the message arrived from the Great Beyond. My neighbor stopped by, stared at the newly planted Japanese maple and said, “Wow! I love it. Those leaves look like stars.” Stars! Indeed, they do.

It was all there. The unexpected gift had caused the stars to align in complex and unexpected ways. So, with that, I bid you a joyous July. Now, I have to go find the paper and read my horoscope.