I’ve been thinking about the difference between renovating the kitchen and gardening. Some people in this world see them as essentially the same. Yes, the kitchen renovation can be a colossal upheaval — but when it’s done, it’s done. You put in a new stove. Done. Ditto for the refrigerator and cabinets and dishwasher. Then all that’s left is to enjoy it.
There are people who think gardening is like that. Hire a bunch of guys. Have them come in with a truckload of plants, dig some holes and leave. Or find everything you need to know on the internet. Surely there’s an app for that.
But gardening doesn’t work that way. Gardening is a process. You may happen to get it started, but a garden evolves over time. The universe intervenes.
Looking for some good public plantings? Head for an airport. Not just any airport, but the airports in Chicagoland. While I haven’t been in every airport around the country, I’ve seen enough to take a look and sniff, “Chicago’s airports are better than this.”
A lovely handwritten letter recently slid through our mail slot.Penned by Lou Emmons of Richmond, Ill., the letter had been sent to thank us for our most recent issue, especially the article on iris.
A subscriber since the magazine’s beginning, Lou recalled our very early story about Virginia Umberger, whose shade garden in Elgin was ahead of its time. Virginia started planting native woodland wildflowers when they were almost nonexistent in local garden centers or mail order nurseries. Yet she persevered and in time created a garden that became famous for its collections of springtime ephemerals that thrived beneath her massive oaks. She always said the key to her garden’s success was the oak leaves that fell every year and decomposed, nourishing her soil.
Where I grew up, it was common for us country people, whenever we found ourselves in a town, to drive around looking at the different neighborhoods, scrutinizing the houses and front gardens, noting what we liked (or not) and, if we were younger, dreaming of one day living in something similar. A dutiful teenager, I enjoyed sitting in the back seat with my parents in front, giving a running commentary, as we rolled along. This is what passed for weekend entertainment in north central Kansas in the 1960s.
After I graduated from college, my husband and I moved to Oxford, England for a year and, good Midwesterners both, we naturally expected to relax on Sunday afternoons by taking little drives around the city looking at the houses and gardens. We soon found ourselves turning around and going home.
I often worry that my neighbors think I’m lazy. Yes, they may see me on my hands and knees, covered with dirt, and they may see me mowing the lawn and dumping out bags of grass clippings, but more often they’re likely to see me just standing in front of my plants. Looking. Staring.
This begins around the middle of March when I venture forth daily to check if anything has broken dormancy. Rummage around the clump of lady’s mantle and there, by golly gee whiz, is a half-inch folded pale green leaf. Yes! The plant’s alive and already on its way to blooming in a couple months. And here’s a crocus. That shoot wasn’t here yesterday, but now it’s up at least an inch. Tomorrow, will there be a flower?
Gardening may be good for the soul, but this summer it was good for larceny.
That’s right. Plants were stolen from my garden this year. Three times. I am still reeling from the shock.
Two of the plants were new — an Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ that was supposed to mature into a bushy 3-foot tall yellow-leaved perennial in a shady part of the backyard, and a small cluster of ‘Cherry Berry’ hens and chicks (Sempervivum) that looked in a catalog photo as though they might be as red as those I had once seen at England’s Sissinghurst Garden. I’ve been seeking something equally red for 20 years.
In the world of fashion, styles change rapidly. All of a sudden this summer, women started walking down the street with their shoulders peeking out from their sleeves. Where did that come from anyway?
In the gardening world, styles change more slowly. But change they do. During the summer as I was driving down 55th Street, I passed the new high-rise dormitory complex Jeanne Gang designed at the University of
Chicago. The architecture is striking, but what caught my eye as I whizzed past that day was the mixed plantings in front with tall goldenrods dancing in the breeze, along with grasses and hydrangeas. You wouldn’t have seen anything like this 20, or even 10 years ago. There would have been lines of red geraniums and yellow marigolds for summer and more lines of mounded chrysanthemums for fall. Public garden design and landscaping have now become so much more interesting. The aesthetic has changed.
There are people who say that autumn is their favorite time of year. I’m not one of them, although God knows I’ve tried. Yes, I sometimes wax ecstatic over the way colors change from day to day (orange yesterday, red today – “like magic!” I exclaim), but deep down my comments are suffused with whiffs of wistfulness. Yes, there are days when I observe that October is a fabulous month in Chicagoland – clear blue skies, low pollution, temps in the 80s – what’s not to like? But then I remember that all around me these plants are dying, never mind that they are coloring up the world with their last fleeting gasps.
If all has gone according to plan, our gardens are looking fabulous right about now. Yes, I still hanker after the bold and the beautiful, envisioning arbors draped with 15-foot sprays of fragrant roses and clematis like those I’ve seen in England. But I have no place for an arbor and many of those Anglo behemoths aren’t hardy here, so I’ve chosen a non-fragrant behemoth that is: ‘William Baffin’. If you want an ubermensch rose, this is it. ‘Rubens’, which regularly clambers to the rooftops and transforms even the most nondescript English house into a thing of beauty, I have high hopes this year for Clematis ‘Pendragon’, the 10-foot tall rosy-purple marvel that our Associate Publisher Ann Sanders says blooms non-stop in her Bolingbrook garden. Having a covetous nature, I ordered one for myself as soon as I heard her singing its praises. I’m giving it marching orders to climb to the top of my ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae.
The day began with signs of gloom and doom. A new report from the National Wildlife Foundation said that monarch butterfly populations continue to decrease. Then a friend emailed a link to a New York Times story about the travails of a bee-keeping family I remember from my childhood.(1)
The Adee family lived in north central Kansas at the time, not far from my parents’ farm, but their business operated in many states. Today Adee Honey Farms is the largest in the country and the mysterious colony collapse disorder that has been killing bees here and abroad is also affecting them. Last year 44 percent of the bees in the U.S. died, and the Adees lost half of their 90,000 hives.
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