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10 Years After


I’m not sure whether I should be celebrating or apologizing.

Let me explain. The 700 or so words on this page mark my tenth anniversary as a columnist for Chicagoland Gardening magazine. It scares me to think that some of my readers are younger than that. It also scares me to think that some parents might allow their kids to read this column. But I digress.

I’m surprised that the tenth anniversary is generally known as the “tin” anniversary. Which means that if you’ve survived the close combat of a relationship for a whole decade, the best you can hope for a reward is a substance that is used to coat steel containers for food preservation or to stabilize PVC plastics. So, on your tenth anniversary, I suggest you give your wife a few cans of water chestnuts. Or delight your husband with a length of PVC pipe. Then prepare to sleep on the couch, whatever gender you are.

The other thing I’ve learned about tenth anniversaries is that the flower of choice is the daffodil. Not a particularly spectacular choice but not a horrible one, either…if you like the broad palette consisting of the colors yellow, white and orange. So if any of you out there want to send me a spray of daffodils in a tin cup in honor of my surviving ten years as a horticultural writer, well…oh, save your money.

The most important thing, as we all know, is not the physical reward one receives for services rendered but the reward one receives from learning. (Yeah, it hurt me to write that as much as it hurts you to read it.)
Regardless, I’ve learned a few things in ten years of horticultural writing, despite evidence to the contrary. Here they are, in no particular order.

We’ve lost control of binomial nomenclature. For instance, Leucanthemum vulgare, or oxeye daisy, used to be called Chrysanthemum leucanthemum. I’m not exactly sure when the horticultural powers-that-be decided to kick oxeye daisies out of their “Chrysanthemum Chlub,” but I think it was about the time that folks discovered that the oxeye daisy is so invasive that you shouldn’t be surprised to find that it has stolen your identity. You may take that as a horticultural tip, if you like. Now dial 9-1-1…immediately!

Dirt is not the same as soil. Or is it “Soil is not the same as dirt?” I know there’s an important point here because I read it everywhere in very serious horticultural articles. But I can’t seem to remember what the actual difference is. I’ll get back to you on that. By the way, the other thing I’ve learned about dirt…er, soil, is that if you knew absolutely everything that was going on down there — bacteria, fungi, microbes, nematodes, compaction, doggie doo-doo, Jimmy Hoffa, lead contamination, rusty nails, phosphorus, Alice in Chains, night crawlers, Dirt Devils — you’d just pave it over (see Jimmy Hoffa).

The number one cause of plant mortality is people. No further comment.

We’ve lost control of garden tools. It used to be that the “Garden Weasel” was on the fringe of horticultural experience. But have you seen the “Garden Honey Badger,” “Garden Scorpion,” “Garden Gila Monster” and “Garden Piranha?” Makes you want to take up bungee jumping as a safe hobby, doesn’t it? And I haven’t even gotten to the “The Extreme Stumpulator” that will remove your tree stump in less than 40 seconds — guaranteed! — and also your neighbor’s backyard, if you don’t shut it off fast enough. There’s “The 18th Century Garden Cultivator,” which approaches the task the old school way — it plays Mozart while pruning your shrubs into topiaries of the greatest thinkers of the Age of Reason. My boxwood bust of Voltaire is the envy of gardeners for blocks.

An aluminum lawn chair in the compost pile will not decompose. Don’t ask me how I know this, okay? But I’m certain of this one.

Just because you bought the plant in your home state doesn’t mean that it’s a native. If I don’t explain these things, who will?

So there you have it. Is it any wonder that I’m considered the garden writing equivalent of Rousseau? Or is that Montesquieu? Wait…it might be Spinoza…Wollstonecraft? Goethe? Handel? Well, it’s one of those heads on my front lawn. I know that for a fact.

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questions

I have a nicely sheltered, rounded 7-foot tall Japanese red maple on the southeast corner of my backyard. Half of the tree has lost its leaves, the formerly red bark is turning gray, and a good-sized square of bark has been stripped off on the side that faces the yard. I sprayed the exposed bark with black pruning spray to close any entry for insects. I have not cut off any of the branches.

Does the winter have any effect on the tree? Should I look for some insect infestation? What should I do now?

I brought my mandevilla plant into the house to overwinter. How best can I keep it? Will it flower? Can I root pieces of it?

I have read that purple coneflowers (Echinacea) are a good source of food for birds in the winter. Will they be okay if not trimmed back until spring? If so, how early should they be trimmed?

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