Saturday, November 24

Understanding Miss Willmott

Ellen Willmott was a British artist and gardener who had several plants named after her, including a white, double-flowering lilac and a pale, pink-edged rose. The best known plant that bears her name, however, is a biennial sea holly, eryngium gigantium, known as 'Miss Willmott's Ghost.' Apparently Miss Willmott enjoyed sprinkling the seeds of this particular plant about--in effect, leaving her "ghosts" to appear in the gardens of her friends and acquaintences long after she had departed those places.

You can see an image of her starry, silvery doppelganger (or a similar cultivar) at the bottom of this first picture, courtesy of King Coyote and Flickr. When I first read about Miss Willmott's sneaky propagation of this eryngium, I shuddered. I couldn't imagine someone ever doing that to my garden, and I knew that I would never be so brazen as to invade someone else's garden in that way.

Or... would I?

Hmm. Time to digress for a minute:

Like so many women in her generation, my fraternal grandmother was a "homemaker." Since she was very good at sewing and upholstering, she often did work for other people out of her home while my grandpa earned a living mixing and laying cement. I have always been amazed at how easy Grandma made it seem to create new, tightly fitting cushions for an old rocking chair or whip up a bride's dream dress with nary a pattern book in sight.

Grandma still lives in the house beside my childhood home, where she and grandpa raised their 6 kids--and where I "pilfered" some of her variegated iris this summer. Grandpa died at 57, before he even reached retirement age, and she mostly relies on monthly social security checks to pay her bills. As you can imagine, she could definitely use the money that I would happily pay her for her work on my bridesmaids dresses, business suits, and so on.

Unfortunately, whenever that is offered she insists rather indignantly that, "I will not let my grandchildren pay me for any sewing work! I'm just happy that I can still do this for you." Her good German stubbornness has percolated down through the generations, however, and I can't help but think of how she's saved me at least (yes, at least) $700 in alteration costs over the past decade.

And so I have become determined to do something--preferably something that she simply will not be able to be mad about--to pay back her kindness in some small way. And this is how I came to understand Miss Willmott a whole lot better.

See, I was looking at tulip bulbs this fall when suddenly, an idea clicked. Grandma really loves her "pretties," even though she can no longer do a lot of the heavy work in the garden. She might balk at me offering to buy her mulch or bringing over a new trellis for her now-huge clematis, but... well, really, what could she say about tulips?

Tulips come up in the spring, when any color that breaks the grey/brown of a Northwest Ohio winter is sure to bring a smile. And by the time she becomes aware of their existence, the actual acts of buying and planting them are long over. There has to be some statue of limitations (or so I can claim) on complaining about a random act of beautification. And my trump card is this: Before Grandma can even utter the words, "Kim! You didn't have to do that," or shake a finger in my direction... she will first have to figure out that I am the person responsible for the riot of 120 'Impression Mix' Darwin hybrid tulips in her front garden and huge cast iron pot!

Just a few key, trustworthy family members knew about my tulip-planting plan, which was successfully completed earlier this evening. Armed with a bagful of bulbs, a trowel, a shovel and a 5-gallon bucket, I snuck over to her house just after she left for my cousin's basketball game. I carefully skimmed the mulch off of the top of the bed and stored it in the bucket while I dug up some ground for the "large drifts." (The trowel was used to plant some bulbs into the cast iron pot as well.)

Eventually the bulbs were all tucked in, mulch was replaced and smoothed, and a dusting of oakleaves was randomly raked over the area to further hide any evidence of garden disturbance. It was a little later than twilight when I gathered up my things and started walking home with red cheeks and frosty fingers. And suddenly I thought of Miss Willmott, and remembered my initial horror at her eryngium-strewing hubris, and grinned.

I'm not about to make a habit of planting seeds or even random bulbs in other people's gardens... but I think that I understand her a little better now. I would imagine that as she left a garden in which she had sprinkled her magic ghost-dust, she was hoping for the same thing that I was tonight: To have planted not just a plant, but some delight and wonderment for another gardener to discover.


Gina said...

i love this post and your sneaky idea! I can't wait until next spring to read the story of when she discovers this! please do keep us posted. i also did not know the story of Miss Wilmott either, so thanks for that.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Gina! I definitely will let you know--I wonder if she'll actually say anything in the spring, or wait for someone to come up to her and "confess." lol.

By the way, while fixing the spelling of Ellen Willmott's name from my original post, I came across this interesting article on her from the UK. Maybe she wasn't very altruistic in her strewing of seeds after all (this author almost makes it sound like she was punishing other gardeners by sowing these "up and down their borders!") but at least the reason I mentioned in my original post is something I could understand and maybe excuse as a motivator for this intrusion. :)

growingagardenindavis said...

This is a heart-warming post...about such a lovely (and sneaky!) loving gift. Miss Willmott's, maybe not so much... I will also be waiting for next spring's update!

Entangled said...

Your story made me warm all over this morning. Those tulips are going to be such a nice surprise in the spring.

This is the second time I've read of Ellen Willmott recently. Eleanor Perenyi in Green Thoughts has some very uncomplimentary things to say about her personality, although not about her horticultural accomplishments.

Anonymous said...

What an amazingly thoughtful gift, Kim! Plus, you get all the fun of anticipating her reaction. You say now that you won't start planting things in other people's yards, but at the rate you're going, I give it just a year or two before you run out of space in your own garden...then, look out, neighbors!

Anonymous said...

If your Grandma is as sharp as she sounds, she'll know exactly where those tulips came from when their little noses start peeking out of the ground -- if she hasn't already noticed that her mulch was disturbed.

I think a long time ago I promised you some verbascum seed. I've resisted following up on that as I gradually learned more about your garden. I fear that -- even though my contribution to your garden wouldn't be anonymous like Miss Willmott's -- you might end up cursing 'Ellis Hollow's Folly' the same way folks invoke 'Miss Willmott's Ghost'.

Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful, thoughtful pay-back for your grandma, Kim. I'm sure she'll love seeing the surprise tulips when they pop up. said...

Kim, what a great post -- and idea. In one of my gardening magazines, quite some time ago, I read about an elderly woman (though it wasn't Miss Willmott) who would invite friends to her garden every autumn. She would have a supply of bulbs of different sorts: some she would plant herself where she wanted them, but the rest were for her guests to plant secretly. She always waited each spring to see what would come up, and where! I thought it was a delightful gardening idea. Your tulip planting and the story about Mill Willmott's ghost have tied in beautifully. I should have written about that little story in my blog! I look forward to reading about what happens in spring!

Happy Gardening,


Lisa at Greenbow said...

What fun this will be for your Grandma next spring. Will you confess that you planted them?

Some friends and I often do little "thoughtful" tricks to one another. I planted some bulbs in my friends garden once. She placed a plastic parrot in my big outdoor birdcage, another friend glued big blue "gems" on the bower I built several years ago. No one ever confesses to these deeds but we always figure out who did it, I think. Of course the usual response is "I guess the garden fairies did it." tee hee...

Colleen Vanderlinden said...

I remember thinking how sneaky that Miss Wilmott was when I first heard her story. Your reasons and your way of doing it are much sweeter, and I can't wait to hear about your grandma's reaction when she sees them. What fun!

Meagan said...

I think that's lovely... half mischievous, half sweet? As for Miss Wilmott, since I'm not a gardener I obviously can't feel the same sense of horror you do... I just think what a perfectly English kind of revenge that is... too funny.

Unknown said...

Leslie, I hope they are lovely for her... I tried to pick a color mix that she would enjoy. :)

entangled, really? I skipped this month on the Garden Blogger's Book Club so I missed reading Ms. Perenyi... so after reading "Green Thoughts," you think that Miss Willmott would not have had such positive motivations for her seed-sowing?

nan, LOL at your observation that I'm running out of space, because you're probably pretty accurate in your assessment of how m any years I have left! But, see, after that I have another plan: Containers. I will have a ton of driveway left to cover. (After that, though, I'm hoping that my brothers and their wives will have houses and want help landscaping... lol.)

Craig, I think that the pink might throw her off, and I know that she will "blame" a couple of other people before she gets around to figuring out that it's me, just because I technically live 2.5 hours away. *grin*

As far as the verbascum goes... I have a few thoughts in response, but first: I am now burning with curiosity, wondering what it is about my garden that makes you think I wouldn't want the verbascum. Please share?

pam/digging, I hope so!

Diane, what a FUN gardener she must have been! I love that idea... I would still have control over my colors, but would have the wonderful surprises of finding things in unexpected places. Lovely. :)

Lisa, I don't know... I thought I would, but I might just say now that the garden faeries must have done it! *GRIN* Your friends sound like a whole lot of fun, by the way. I laughed out loud imagining what you must have thought when you saw the fake bird in your huge birdcage.

colleen, I hope she is happy with them when she sees them next spring... she's not had a really easy life, so it's fun to do nice things for her when I can. :)

meagan, you think that's cool, huh? Well, I have some extra tulips left from another project and I know where you live... ;) teehee. Oops, nevermind. I said that I wasn't going to do that anymore, didn't I?

(By the way, you're so right about that being a perfectly English kind of revenge by Miss Willmott, if indeed her intentions were not that good.)

Carol Michel said...

Kim... The best 'random acts of kindness' are of the gardening kind, aren't they? Hopefully no one will spill the beans to your grandma, but she'll figure out it was you, anyway, once those tulips start blooming!

Anonymous said...

This post made me laugh. I just planted (secretly) a bunch of red tulips in my mom's garden in Virginia. I haven't known what to do for her since her cancer diagnosis, and whenever I do happen to do something, she tells me that I shouldn't have. If I had told her that I was planting tulips, she would have told me that was silly (she's not feeling very hopeful these days) - so I did it while she was taking a nap. Hopefully she'll get to enjoy them in the early spring. I do hope so.

Muum said...

let us all see the results in the spring. I hope it is a great surprise for your grandmother after the winter.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful story--a lovely gift for your grandmother and for those of us who read and are touched by your kindness, Kim. Maybe if more of us practiced such random acts of planting, the world would be a happier place. Certainly it would be a prettier place! :-)

Meagan said...

Kim, you are more than welcome to extract your English revenge on my "garden" at any time whatsoever. You might want to let Matt know though, because as you know plants don't survive long when I'm the sole caretaker... (though that poor jade plant took years to die)

Annie in Austin said...

You should be pretty safe doing your secret gardening with tulips, Kim - when the leaves emerge from the ground there's no way the foliage could be confused with a weed. I wonder how many of Miss Wilmott's ghostly eryngiums avoided the gardener's hoe long enough to bloom?

It will be fun to see the results of your and Pam's guerilla gardening when they bloom next spring.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

kris said...

Hi Kim - I love this act of kindness!! I wish I had thought of it while my gardening grandmothers were still alive - and I hope someday I have grandchildren who will be as thoughtful as you!!

I just recently read the story of Miss Willmott's gifts to other gardeners - quite honestly if a gardener with your eye wanted to help me out, I think I'd be most appreciative!!

Robin (Bumblebee) said...

Well, this made me smile to think of her finding all those lovely tulips and scratching her head. I don't suppose it will take her long to figure out who the garden fairy is.

--Robin (Bumblebee)

Anonymous said...

Kim: I am also smiling at this post! It begs the question 'Who receives more from the giving'? The one on the receiving end or the giving end? You are a treasure!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

What a great gift for your grandma! I always found it hard to figure out what to give my grandmas for presents. Sadly, they both had to leave their homes b4 I got into gardening, so I could never do anything fun like this for them. The best gift giving is done anonymously. BTW I tagged you for the 8 Random Things meme. I know this is a busy time, but it's not like there's a due date on it. I hope you'll participate.

Anonymous said...


Fantastic blog entry. One of the best I've read in the past two years.

Garden Wise Guy said...

Kim: Has anyone zapped you for a ‘meme’ lately? It’s a pleasant little exercise in proliferating blogs. Have a look at my blog ( and decide if you’d like to keep things moving. Simple rules and a great way to see what everyone is up to…

Anonymous said...

What a neat story! I can't wait to hear what happens when they come up this Spring!
~Angela :-)

lisa said...

Great idea, Kim! My mom is moving in with me in the spring, so I can't duplicate this for her, but my sister is another story! Chuck at Episodic Whoreticulture has mentioned "guerilla gardening", and I plan to make some wildflower "seed bombs" to beautify some spots around the area, but the bulbs are a great Annie said "unmistakable foliage".

lisa said...

Oh BTW, I'd left this link in a followup to one of your comments at my blog, and I wanted to be sure you see it...for Coco's sake ;-) Annie in Austin sez' to put down your drink first!

Yolanda Elizabet Heuzen said...

Wat to go Kim, I love it when you're sneaky and I am sure your grandmother will love it too. Super idea to thank a super granny!!!!

And for Pam: I hope your mother will enjoy her tulips next spring! Such a lovely gift!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

OMG! That link Lisa left is a stitch! I wish they'd had that when I had my dogs.

Anonymous said...

What a great post, and such a beautiful idea. I can't wait for a followup in the spring, to hear how overcome your grandmother is with the riot of color in her gardens!

This reminds me of the children's book Miss Rhumphius--the Lupine Lady.

Heavy Petal said...

Kim, you're a guerilla gardener! congratulations, and welcome to the tribe. Feels good, doesn't it?

Unknown said...

Carol, I don't know... a few of my aunts have some weeding/planting authority in her garden. I bet she'll blame my godmother first--which will frankly be a compliment to me!

Pam, how funny! We would have been planting our secret tulips at about the same time, although yours will certainly bloom first. I hope that your Mom does get to enjoy them in the early spring... :)

Muum, I do hope to get home and see them in bloom. I didn't make it home to see the trilliums (boo hoo) so a well-timed spring visit is definitely on my schedule.

Jodi, certainly it would be prettier! *grin(

Meagan, that's the beauty of tulips... even you couldn't kill them, I promise! lol. (And yes, your poor jade plant did last through quite a bit of abuse... heh.)

Annie in Austin, that's a very good point. Miss Willmott's ghostly eryngiums would have to look way too much like plain old thistles when they emerged, wouldn't they? They wouldn't last long in my garden, that's for sure!

kris, if your grandchildren aren't as thoughtful... then you could always surprise your grandchildren! *grin* Thanks for the compliment, by the way, but I don't know if I have much of an "eye." It seems to me that my favorite things in my own garden are the unplanned "happy accidents!" lol.

Robin, it just might take her a bit! I can see her not saying anything, just waiting to see who comes up and asks her about the tulips (innocently) and then jumping on them: "Did YOU do that?!" mwahahahaha!

Layanee, in this case it's definitely the giver. She's helped me out so much that I'm really happy to have figured out a way to pay her back!!!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter, I thought I was escaping this round of meme... lol. But you and someone else both tagged me, so I will definitely play along. I just can't figure out what to say for #8! (I really do have the rest of them done.)

MrBrownThumb, awww... thanks. Doesn't hold a candle to your post about the temporary companion, though. That one hasn't left me, and I think that I am still learning from it.

Garden Wise Guy, uh-oh.. is this the "8 Things" meme that I'm still working on after my first tag? If not, it might be a while before I get around to it but I will answer... there just really isn't enough interesting stuff about me to share, I'm afraid. :)

Angela, thanks for stopping by and leaving me a comment! I definitely will be updating everyone on the situation, I promise.

lisa, you so crack me up! Seriously, can you IMAGINE cleaning the doggy drool off of the inside of that thing? The back windows of the car are bad enough... lol.

Yolanda Elizabet, thank you! She is a super granny. :)

Mr. McGregor's Daughter, yeah, but... see what I said above re: cleaning it. EWWW! lol.

Kelly, I LOVE the idea behind that book! What a wonderful place this would be if everyone was most concerned about how exactly they would leave the world a more beautiful place...

this said...

What a lovely idea. I'll look forward to hearing about her reaction.

David (Snappy) said...

Great post Kim.I live next door to an empty house.The weeds have taken over their.I already cleared their brambles, so i might as well take it a step further and renovate their small plot.Plant some winter flowers untill someone moves in!
I never heard that story but Eringium is one of my fav plants from this year.I need to buy some sea holly for the new garden.
I hope your Grandmother likes the tulips and appreciates all your sneaky efforts!
Hugs :)

Anonymous said...

Kim, I swear I thought I wrote a comment on this post. Can't remember what it was about, but I loved it (your post, not my comment). Here's my attempt at using html for a link to my website:

Fern @ Life on the Balcony said...

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is a legal concept called "tolling" which prevents the statute of limitations from starting until after a hidden crime is discovered. Luckily for you, I don't think your grandma is going to prosecute. :-)

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