My Garden Stories

By Alyssa Chase, Garden No. 8


From the 2023 Irvington Garden Tour

During the garden tour on Sunday, June 25, 2023, visitors could find and follow numbers placed throughout the garden to connect to these stories. Scroll past the photos for stories and follow along on this video.

1. Aromatic Agastache

Licorice hyssop has become one of my favorite plants. I love the strong, aromatic scent. I first found agastache at the now-closed Paul’s Nursery on Brookfield Road. Someone had special-ordered it, and I bought the leftovers. My neighbor Andrea is also a fan; she loves hummingbirds, which the tubular flowers attract. She has given me starts, and I’ve also ordered the plants from High Country Gardens. Some don’t make it through the winter, but they reseed themselves. I’m always excited when they pop up in late spring.

 2. Lily Dale

The old pom-pom pink-and-white peonies in this garden were here when I arrived, though I’ve moved them around over the years. Last year I added a few new varieties I bought from Kelly McVey, who founded the Indiana Peony Festival in Noblesville. During the pandemic, I worked for Kelly at Kit magazine, which ceased publication in 2022. I like to call this little garden Lily Dale because I plant my lilies here. Lily Dale is a spiritualist town in New York. It’s also a favorite 10,000 Maniacs song.

3. The Rowan Tree

I learned about rowan trees (mountain ash) while working in the children’s book industry in New York City. A friend of mine, Kris Waldherr, illustrated a beautiful rowan tree in a picture-book version of The Seal Prince. Rowan trees are a big deal in old world folklore. In Celtic cultures they’re thought to protect people from supernatural powers. People used to carry pieces of the tree to ward off witchcraft and used rowan sprigs to protect produce and cattle from enchantment. A rowan trees could also protect a home. I love rowan trees so much that my husband and I named our son Rowan Jakob. This rowan grew from a tiny sapling I purchased online.

4. Monkey Grass

I have a long and complex relationship with liriope, which my mother calls “monkey grass.” It began in New Orleans, where I was born and where most of my extended family still lives, and continued in Kansas City, where I grew up and my mom planted patches in both shade and sun. My mom brought liriope to her lake house in the Ozarks, too. It’s invasive but controllable with a lawn mower. Liriope is prolific in landscaping in St. Louis, where I lived for three years. When I first moved to this house 25 years ago, I transplanted liriope here to fill an area of deep shade. Now this spot gets sun. I love the way a patch of liriope creates a place for your eye to rest. This patch used to include a red maple that got a fungus and died. I planted a new evergreen to honor my mother-in-law Pat Rebein’s memory after she passed away last summer, and in the spring the maple grew back. I’m going with the flow.

5. Ollie’s Garden

My big lemon beagle, Ollie, is famous in Irvington for his bark and his adventures. About five years ago, Ollie jumped the fence late at night on the Fourth of July and went missing. An army of kind Irvington neighbors kept an eye out and helped me search for him. After Ollie was spotted on Good Avenue, I made a scented trail from my house to the Pennsy trail with dirty laundry, and he found his way home. Soon after that, we had an invisible fence put in within our white picket fence. The invisible fence opened up opportunities for gardening because the dogs could no longer smash all the plants along the fence line. Near the window box in this area are memorials to three other beloved dogs: My big white lab, Blue, and two beagles, Ricky and Trucker.

6. Gardening with Birds

Feeding the birds has always been part of gardening for me. My dad, who passed away when I was in my 30s, fed the birds in our garden in Kansas City and at my parents’ lake house in the Ozarks. I’ve had feeders in New York City, Buffalo and St. Louis. I feed the birds now, even though they make a mess. They’re my inspiration. The old wrought-iron screen against the windows was my grandparents’. It helps prevent accidents. I added the hostas on the hill outside the fence to cover up bird detritus (sunflower hulls). I regularly see cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays, finches, sparrows, starlings and chickadees, and I occasionally host orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks and red-winged blackbirds. This spring, a pair of mallards came to visit. Everybody’s welcome.

7. Ria’s Crabapple Tree

When I was pregnant with my daughter Ria, I worked at an alternative weekly in St. Louis called The Riverfront Times. One of my colleagues, Sue, was married to a Native American man, and when Ria was born, she gave me a small woven-pine basket. She instructed me to place what was left of Ria’s umbilical cord in the basket when it fell off, and then bury it when Ria was 7 years old and plant a tree. That’s what I did. This is Ria’s crabapple tree. Several pet hamsters have been buried here. I followed the same practice with my son. His weeping cherry tree is in the front yard.

8. Table Rock Pond

My maternal grandparents in New Orleans built a beautiful goldfish pond behind their house, and I’ve always wanted one, too. When we got an invisible fence, I blocked off an area for a pond. My friend James Brown helped dig the hole, and I moved in my pet goldfish, known as The Fab Five. A few of the fish came from the Little Flower Festival years ago. We also have a resident frog who likes to hang out on the little island. Many of the rocks come from Table Rock Lake in the Ozarks, where my mom has a lake house. Some rocks come from Dodge City, Kansas, where my husband’s family has a ranch, and a few come from the Backyard Blessings pond shop at 30th and Franklin. I love to listen to the trickle of the water and watch the fish when I work from home, and this is my family’s favorite place to hang out on weekend evenings for cocktail hour.

9. Order and Disorder

This is a key concept in poem-making, and it applies to gardening, too. I like to juxtapose tidy areas with wild ones. I experiment in my messy gardens and watch to see what they do.

10. A Battle with Goutweed

Ground elder or goutweed, also known as gout wort and snow-in-the-mountain, is a member of the carrot family that’s native to Europe and Asia. It’s incredibly invasive. It was at the house when I moved in, filling shady areas. It produces pretty Queen-Anne’s-lace-like flowers around the time the peonies bloom, and it spreads via runners. I often move plants around, sometimes impulsively, and I’ve managed to help the goutweed spread throughout the yard. I don’t like the idea of RoundUp, so I resort to weed-preventing fabric and cardboard, and the weeding never ends. I’ve been trying a “no-till operation” in some areas because weeding only seems to stimulate growth. If anyone has ideas of how to get rid of goutweed organically, let me know!

11. Tomato Teepees

When I moved into the house, there were two healthy blue spruce trees in this spot. But a fungus was slowly killing them. An arborist told me that blue spruces no longer do well in this climate. So, rather than watch the trees die, I had them removed and added a kitchen garden. This is one of the only spots I get sun. I grow tomatoes, herbs and flowers like zinnias here. I don’t need other veggies because I’ve belonged to the Irvington CSA for 16 years. I get fresh produce and support an Amish farm family from May to October. Be sure to peek around to the alley to see the sweet peas. I suspect they’ve been growing here for almost a century. I just let them keep going.

12. Dogs in the Grass

I’ve always loved grasses—especially after spending a lot of time out on the prairie in Western Kansas, where this fence post came from. We used to have a swing set in this part of the yard, which we called “Lower Peanutlandia” when the kids were little. Over the years, different dogs (and kids) have played in the grasses, which are mostly inland wood oats. There are also some natives and other types of grass. I’m growing some native hydrangeas, too. A couple of years ago, I moved my roses down here when they weren’t getting enough sun in front. They seem to like it! My husband, Rob, hung the swing just for me.

13. The Mighty Maple

I think this may be the healthiest silver maple I’ve seen in the neighborhood. I love to look up at its giant branches when I’m hanging out by the pond. The tree is probably so healthy because it has its toes in our sewer line. We have the roots cleared out of the pipes twice a year. During the tour, someone suggested I submit the maple to the Indiana Big Tree Register. People were also interested in an arborvitae I’ve been growing in a trough for 20+ years.

14. NOLA Alley

This little alleyway is my son’s favorite spot in the garden. I like it, too. It reminds me of gardens in the French Quarter in New Orleans. It also reminds me of my garden at the old house in the Allentown neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, where I lived with Rob for the first time. It’s a good spot for houseplants to spend the summer outdoors. The fishtail fern came from a cutting from my Grandmother Chase. It grew in her backyard in New Orleans. The staghorn fern came from my mom, most likely by way of her mother.

15. Passion Flowers

“Do you remember the passion flowers?” my mother said. “They climbed all over the fence when you were little.” We’d been talking about gardening in the summertime, and it took me till Thanksgiving to realize I did remember the passion flowers, and not fondly. Those flowers looked like jellyfish, with strange antennae that crawled with bees and tendrils that looked like needles, or stingers. I must have been told about their symbolism, of the crucifixion, too. It was just too much. But now I’m ready for passion flowers. When my daughter was at IU, the passion flowers at Upland Brewery’s beer garden enchanted me. After I tried and failed to grow passion flowers from seed, my friends Shawndra and Judy gave me starts that became these vines.

16. Night-blooming Cereus

When my family moved from New Orleans to Kansas City in the 1970s, my mom loaded the moving van with tropical plants. She set up a greenhouse in the basement every winter, and in spring enlisted the family in the seasonal chore of lugging plants outside. Big plants. Her night-blooming Cereus, grown from a cutting from my grandmother, hung from a crabapple tree in the backyard. The flowers bloom just once—only at night—and, when open, shrink away from the beam of a flashlight. There are many varieties of this plant, which is in the cactus family. Did you see the night-blooming Cereus in the movie Crazy Rich Asians? Mine is way too huge. Please let me know if you’d like a cutting.

17. Nasturtiums

Nasturtiums have always been one of my favorite summer flowers. I first saw them in paintings by Matisse. When I lived in Buffalo, where summers are cool, they thrived in my window boxes all season. The variegated Alaska variety is so beautiful, and I love the way healthy nasturtiums trail from window boxes. I used the jewel-colored flowers in salads all summer. I loved nasturtiums so much that, when I got married, I filled little bags with nasturtium seeds and gave them to guests as wedding favors.

Community Gardening
Thanks to all of my friends who showed up for the tour and/or offered encouragement: Melissa, Eileen, Shawndra, Julie, Judy, Dawn, Mark, Nancy and Natalie. Thanks to the friends who helped me garden, plan and prune: Jo, Jo Lynn and Gaynell. Thanks to my paid helpers Luke (age 9) and Parker. Thanks to my sister Trina for sending the waving lights and my mom for teaching me to garden. Thanks to Jake for the mowing and edging. A special thanks to my husband, Rob, for creating paths, patching concrete, hauling rocks and mulch and opening the door when Melany invited me to be on the tour. The post-tour cocktails were yummy, too.