A Clean Tool is a Safe Tool
In the garden, everything has its season. Fall is the season for cleaning and preparing tools for spring. Dirt and rust are harmful to just about everything, but especially to garden tools that are often wet and dirty. We depend on our tools to be safe and effective. Dirt and rust make our tools less safe and make us work harder. Water may be great for the garden, but it is the enemy of our tools.
As a 50-something gardener, I have happily clocked in thousands of hours on my knees – digging, dividing, snipping and cajoling all varieties of flowering perennials. I have ignored very few fragrant Iris or heavenly-blue Delphinium at garden centers and plant sales over the years. Lately, however, my eyes have been wandering over to the woody-stemmed plants.
In a way you could call it a kitchen garden, and why not? Although there’s not a vegetable to be seen, it was designed while Brian Helfrich was sitting on his usual chair in the kitchen, staring into the backyard, thinking.
A construction manager with Aquascape, Inc., Helfrich explains that he treats every garden he does the same way, designing from inside the house looking out. “I lived in that chair by the kitchen window,” he recalls, referring to the period in which he planned the multi-purpose garden that he built for his Downers Grove backyard.
Big beefy dahlias with their dinner-plate-sized flowers are darlings of the garden from summer through the first autumn frosts. Although many gardeners treat dahlias as disposable annuals, it’s easy to store them over winter – and save money – for another display the following year. It’s simply a matter of digging up the tubers and roots after the first fall frost.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to writing one of my columns last year. I decided to draw something instead, thereby saving myself from writing about four hundred words and, simultaneously, terrorizing approximately 93% of the people who open the magazine to this page. (How do we know? We take dozens and dozens of scientific polls about every aspect of this publication. Doesn’t everybody?)
I titled that piece “I Can’t Draw, Don’t Ask Me” and a second funny thing happened a couple of months ago. It won an award from the Garden Writers Association (of America, no less). For illustration. This is what we in the writing business call “irony.”
I always feel grumpy when people refer to gardening as a hobby, and now I know why.
This winter, garden columnist Allen Lacy died, and in The New York Times obituary there was a quote from one of his books that suddenly made clear why the hobby moniker has never sat well with me. “Gardening is not a hobby,” Lacy wrote in The Inviting Garden. “There is nothing wrong with having hobbies, but most hobbies are intellectually limited and make no reference to the larger world. By contrast, being wholeheartedly involved with gardens is involvement with life itself in the deepest sense.”
I once had a friend tell me, “I am adding more geums to my garden – they are so lovely and delicate. And now they come in more colors than ever.” So I nodded and smiled and kept my mouth shut because I realized that I actually didn’t know what a geum was.
After searching the Internet I found that I knew these flowers well – I had seen geums a thousand times. The native Geum trifolium is what I knew as prairie smoke. But I still didn’t know much about cultivated geums, which are also called avens.
“President Jimmy Carter once said that life is not fair. I’m not positive, but I don’t think he coined that phrase. I’m not positive about this either, but I think he was referring to gardeners. I’ll check LexisNexis when I have a spare decade.
The point is that not all gardeners are blessed with perfect growing conditions. (I haven’t gone out on a limb here, have I?) The types of soil, water and asphalt paving can all be challenges to the success of our gardens, our personal esteem and hence, our very existence. At least, that’s what I tell my therapist.
“Do you have geraniums?” “Pelargonium or cranesbill?” “Sorry?” “Er, Pelargonium or cranesbill.” “No, I’m not interested in birds. I want a geranium. Got any red ones?” “Exactly. I was just explaining that what you call a geranium is actually a Pelargonium.” “Then why don’t they call it that?” “Well, it’s sometimes called a storksbill.” “Like I said, I don’t wanna bird.” “No, I’m just saying that cranesbills and storksbills are two different things.” “Especially to their mamas.”
I once knew a woman who vacuumed her rock garden. Seems a revered expert from the East Coast was coming on an inspection tour and she wanted everything perfect with nary a weed or fallen leaf in sight.
I was thinking about her as I pulled out my spent tomatoes and put away the cages this past fall. I had a reasonably successful garden in 2016, but I’m sure she would have looked askance at no end of horticultural errors and mishaps had she descended for a visit chez moi. Fortunately, she wasn’t invited.
A requirement during my horticulture education was an internship at a public garden. I did mine at Cantigny Park in Winfield. After a very hot, humid summer I was left with no illusions about how many endless hours, the number of people, and how much work it takes to plant and maintain a public garden. This experience was invaluable.
Recently Cantigny’s Project New Leaf has been all the buzz in the gardening community. I recently had the opportunity to tour the grounds with the Director of Horticulture, Scott Witte and Senior Manager of Communications, Jeff Reiter.
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