There are many lovely plants in Ted and Gidget Nyquist’s garden in Bartlett. But it’s Ted’s collection of rhododendrons – hundreds of them – that stop visitors in their tracks when the plants bloom. “I just love it,” Ted says. “People come around the corner, and they’re not expecting to see a garden with all these rhododendrons.”
There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon that pictures an old tire, a can, a bottle and a pencil on a flat, featureless landscape – save a few non-descript rocks – that stretches to dull gray clouds on the horizon. The caption reads, “Life without Mozart.” The most chilling part of thisdrawing (if you’re me) is that it uncannily evokes my own yard.
the way, no matter how often I remove the tire, the can, the bottle and the pencil from my property, they reappear by the next morning. There’s an episode of “The Twilight Zone” ready to be written here, or perhaps a reboot of “Groundhog Day.” I would particularly welcome the latter, since I think I was the only Chicago actor who didn’t land at least a walk-on part in that film, which is something else that I re-live over and over and over again. But I digress.
I am writing to reach out to humanity, if there is anyone left as of May 1. If you find this note, please take it to the editors of Chicagoland Gardening. They will know what to do with it. No, on second thought, don’t take it to them, because I think I know what they will do with it.
As I write, it is the end of March, and perhaps the end of civilized gardening. It started with “The Winter That Never Was.” Oh, we were happy in our ignorance then. We couldn’t believe our good fortune. It was as if somebody up there ran out of quarters and couldn’t feed the cold/snow/ice machine. (Obviously, that machine is so old that it doesn’t take credit cards.)
“And I’m Hort Holler.” “Well, Hort, we’re about to enter the home stretch. Any thoughts?” “Any thoughts? Hoo-boy, Bud! A bunch of petunias. Look at ‘em!” “Petunias?” “You betcha, Bud. Never seen a bigger bunch of petunias in my life!”
“Uh, actually, Hort, I think you mean pansies.” “Pansies, petunias, whatever. I never seen a bigger bunch.” “You could be right about that, Hort. And they’ve certainly entertained this huge crowd, orange letters spelling out Viola wittrockiana in a sea of purple.” “I don’t know. That ‘W’ looks a little droopy.” “Well, Hort, it’s pretty toasty in that hot sun, especially for pansies.” “Get them pansies off the field! Get ‘em hydrated!”
One fine morning this summer I looked out the second-floor window of my study and discovered a 1-foot tall tomato plant growing a few feet away in the gutter of the back porch. Just one more example, if one were needed, of the amazing, millennia-long saga of seed dispersal on the planet. Thor Hanson offers more examples in his newly published The Triumph of Seeds.
Why do plants grow where they do, puzzled Charles Darwin and other 19th century scientists? When Darwin reached the Galapagos Islands during his 3-year-long voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, he discovered numerous oddities, including cotton. How did it get there?
I was reading a gardening book the other day (yes, I occasionally do research – don’t start on me this early in the column, okay?) and I came across a tip for how to buy the right number of plants for your garden. Unfortunately, it involved unnerving words like “numbers” and “measurements” and “calculations.”
Of course, the tried and true way of figuring out how many plants are needed is to eyeball the garden, go to the garden center, roll out a couple of Radio Flyers full of plants, take ’em home, put ’em in the ground, and try to return the extra plants … for credit, of course. If you undershoot your mark, head back to the garden center. If you’re doing this via the Intertubes and mail, add a few weeks and a couple of emotional meltdowns to the process.
The powers that be have hit upon a wayto get me to stop talking about roses. “Write us a story,” they said, “and get it out of your system.”
It so happens that I do have quite a few roses — more than 20, I believe, although whenever I set out to do a mental count, I keep getting confused. Did I include the ‘Harison’s Yellow’ or not? And what about the Cherry Pie in the container? Oh, I think I forgot Hot Cocoa™. And so I start over, and then start over again. Finally, I decide to just let it go. As I said, more than 20.
Some of these roses I bought because I dearly coveted them ...
They don’t look alike. Not even close. But kinfolk come in all shapes and sizes. True of people and true of plants.
With people you can often tell at a glance who’s related. Sometimes that’s also true of plants.
Look at any daisy-shaped flower, for example – rudbeckia, coneflower, aster, sunflower, Shasta daisy, silphium – and you immediately know they’re in the same family. They’re all composites, members of the Compositae. Kissing cousins, as it were.
Not so with the poinsettia and its kin. Also known as a spurge, it and other members of the Euphorbiaceae family are as diverse as you could possibly imagine. Did you know that the white-flowering Diamond Frost that started adding sparkle to our gardens, especially our container plantings, about 10 years ago is in the Euphorbia genus? Euphorbia hypericifolia ‘Inneuphe’, to be precise. Big splashy red “petals” (modified leaves called bracts) on poinsettias. Teeny glilttering white blossoms on the Diamond Frost.
All the snow we’ve had recently brought many more birds to the feeders outside our kitchen window. A lone starling was joined by sparrows, house finches, downy woodpeckers, seven cardinals, goldfinches (which are beginning to show faint yellow feathers as they lose their winter plumage), mourning doves and the occasional Cooper’s hawk (which sends the small birds scattering). It’s a good time to be indoors cooking and sowing seeds of tomato and pepper plants. As soon as the snow melts, I’ll get my soil thermometer and when the top inch of soil reaches to 52 F or so, I’ll begin sowing kale seeds.
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.”
You know who you are. You’re the gardeners who keep your lawn perfectly edged and weed-free, the ones who maintain an exquisitely proportioned space between plants. You’re the opposite of folks like me whose plants are forever rubbing shoulders with their neighbors and muttering under their breath about garden bullies.
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Chicagoland Garden Walks during May and June 2016
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