The Curious Incident of the Hydrangea in the Nighttime

Updated: Jun 23, 2021

So there’s a house about four houses east and south of ours . New build, super modern, probably worth +$2 million. My husband and I call it “Black Mirror”, after the show. For some reason, I imagine it should be lived in by an ultra-modern Daisy Buchanan, rolling her eyes and lounging under a billowing sun shade, wryly sipping a Gin Rickey beside her gas fire table, lazily gripped with suburban ennui.

Anyway -since we moved in to the neighbourhood in 2019, no one has lived in that house.

It has sat, empty, its sad boxy eyes seeming slightly sheepish about its state of abandon. Its yard is scraggly and sun-baked; parts of the driveway have sagged into a drain; the boxwood seems to be striving to send up one pathetic arm to cover the house number on the short brick wall out front. Only the garlic mustard and burdock are cheerily getting on with it.

Since Black Mirror is so close to us, my son and I walked past that house seemingly bazillions of times that spring.

That’s when I first noticed them, hunched under the eaves of the driveway. Straining for sun and rain, searching for cover from the winds.

The hydrangeas.

My guess was that they had been there since the previous fall, probably when some landscapers had done a bit of work but obviously not finished the job of planting. The hydrangeas had been shoved up near the garage and promptly forgotten, despite their buckets proclaiming them PROVEN WINNERS.

And once I saw them, I couldn’t un-see them.

I wanted to rescue them.

“I think they’re abandoned,” I said to my husband over dinner. “I don’t think they will be planted. I walked up the driveway and looked at them- I think the two larger ones are still alive but the three smaller ones may have already died. They have been there for months. What should we do?”

My husband cocked an eyebrow at me and said “WE shouldn’t do anything – they aren’t ours.”

“But,” I pressed on, “they’ll die if they are left there. Its amazing they have survived as long as they have in their nursery pots, in the elements! I don’t think they should be left to die like that. Just seems cruel, somehow? No one has been to that house in ages.”

“Well , ok –what are you proposing?” he said.

And then I spoke words to the idea that had been growing for days:

“Im going to take them.”


And thus the planning began. And by planning, I mean I canvassed multiple friends and almost-strangers about the situation.

“So, what would you do …?” I asked casually, in a random Saturday night Zoom call with my girlfriends in spring of 2020, setting out the scenario.

“Wait, what? Sorry – bedtime drama-rama over here, my God,” said one friend. “What are you stealing? Why?” One of the others jumped in: “Heather moved to Oakville and her brains got addled and nows shes thieving some flowers from down her road and we are supposed to say its ok.”

“Well, hey now - I don’t think its THAT easy,” I said, and then after an explanation that probably skewed into self-justification, and a lengthy sideline discussion of “stealing” versus “rescuing”, the answers came in.

“Well, I don’t see what the big deal is. They are obviously forgotten and no one is coming for them,” said one friend. “Are they expensive? Would you plant them? Are they alive, are you sure?” said another. “Wait – gotta go – babys awake, ugh, brb – like honestly can I NOT JUST have 10 goddamn minutes to myself”, said another.

“Well, Im going to play devils advocate and say stealing is wrong – they aren’t yours. But at the same time, if you can help them live, that should be ok- like the Hippocratic Oath for gardeners? Hey could you leave a note? Give your phone number? In case they do want them?”

Somewhat helpful and definitely tilted me into the realm of socially acceptable theft.

But the person who tipped it over the edge into action was my kindly neighbour. Now, Annie used to be a kindergarten teacher so if someone is going to give it to me straight about whats right and wrong at a fundamental level, I figure it would be her.

“Hey Annie,” I called over the privet hedge one evening, “question for you.”

Upon hearing the situation, Annie gave a chortle, seemingly amused at my quandry. “You know, Heather,” she said, conspiratorially, leaning in to the privet, “there was a little house down the way that’s not there anymore, it was gone before you moved in. The owners had a lovely garden. The home was sold when they died, and the new owners were going to tear the house down and bulldoze the gardens. So one night, when it was almost dark, know what I did? I went over there and dug up a plant Id always admired. And I thought, that’s fine. I thought the owners would have been actually happy about it.”

Well, that was it. I was going rescue those plants. And I also knew just how I would do it.

“How” was another question entirely, and one that Id been thinking about as long as Id been thinking about “if”.

Also from the Zoom call:

“Well, so if youre going to do it, obviously you should wear black. I mean, youre not a cat burglar, for Gods sakes, but a black dress maybe? Low profile,” said one of my friends. “And go at night.”

“No,” said another. “Go in the day. Like late afternoon-ish. Or latest, dusk. And walk up like you own the place. Then grab them and leave. Be like, what? Maybe wear sunglasses. But not, like, a hat. You’re not HIDING.”

“Well you should leave a note. What if they want them back? Didn’t we decide on a note? But otherwise, ya - walk up like you own the place, leave a note, and then leave. And no flip flops in case you panic and need to run.”

“But how big are they? Arent there like five of these frigging things? Maybe you need your car. Ya, you’ll need to drive. So, here’s what you do: back up the driveway, glance around casually, maybe wave at a neighbour or, like a dog walker, like, oh hey, and them just load them into the trunk. Oh wait-, you live two doors down. So you have the same neighbours. OK, you DON’T want to be seen…. People will be like, wait, what’s she doing there, that’s not her house, that’s weird. So no waving, probably”

Etc, etc, and so on. Great ideas, all, if not somewhat overwhelming.

And so it was, with all of these discussions ripe in my mind, I formulated my plan.

On a rather cool evening in June 2020, around 7:30 PM with the sun setting, with the Little asleep and the Older being read stories, I got into our car and drove 5.5 seconds down our street to Black Mirror. I wore jeans and a black shirt. No hat. Sneakers.

I backed into the driveway and scooted to the top. I got out, glanced around. Saw no one. No waving. Walked to the door. Sandwiched my note into the expensive plate-glass frame. Scampered back to the driveway, popped the hatch. Loaded the hydrangeas in.

Glanced around. Saw no one.

And then I left, drove the 5.5 seconds home, and pulled the hydrangeas out and watered and fertilized them.

That was it.

And that’s the curious incident of the hydrangea in the nighttime.

Editors note: The three small hydrangeas ultimately did not survive. This was sad as they were a pretty and compact variety of smooth Hydrangea aborescens– Mini Mauvette – that have proven difficult to find, although I have seen them at Northlands nursery in Millgrove ON.

Mini-M. Cuuuuuuuties!

The other two (Vanilla Strawberry hydrangea paniculata) were planted in a spot that they didn’t like overly much, so have now be moved to a location where they will get more sun. Oh, and this was basically the note I left: “Ive rescued the hydrangeas to help them survive. If you would like them back, please reach me at XXX-XXX-XXXX. I won’t plant them for a few weeks in case you do want them back. Signed, The Plant Rescuer”.

I never heard a word.

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