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Rex Begonia: Garden Detective


Something was wrong. I could sense it. How? That’s my job.

My name is Begonia. Rex Begonia. I’m a detective. A garden detective. I speak in short clipped phrases and I pack a trowel.

There was nothing wrong with the weather. The weather was perfect. Too perfect. It was one of those evenings that give garden writing a bad name, that cause otherwise perceptive, talented writers to reach inexplicably for their thesauruses. They start using words like “dappled” and “palette” and phrases like “discordant symphony of riotous hues” and I start reaching for the bottle. Pour me a drink, Sam.

Sam is my partner. At least he was. Sam Spade. (Yeah, all the good garden names are already taken.) Anyway, Sam Spade was the best damned garden detective in the world until “The Case of the Mildewed Garden Glove.” Even for a hard-boiled guy like me, it’s still pretty tough to talk about. Let’s just say that Sam mistakenly drank one too many 10 percent bleach solutions. Along with his pruners, he disinfected his lower G.I. tract. I learned a valuable lesson from Sam: always clearly label your garden refreshments. Here’s to you, buddy.

But back to this story.

It was a perfect night in a perfect garden. The garden of Mrs. Thuja von Thistle III. Sam used to say, “Never trust anyone with a Roman numeral after their name. They might be Roman.” I never understood what the hell he was talking about. In this case, though, the Roman numeral was after her husband’s name. And aside from the fact that his name could have been used as a speech pathologist’s warm-up exercise, she was coming on to me like I once saw a hummingbird come on to a bright red fire extinguisher. Whether I would be able to remain as steely was another story.

I got an eyeful as she approached me. She moved the way shadows do under a honey locust on a sunny day. And that dress. It reminded me of a Miscanthus grass plume–and had almost as much substance.

She came over and stood next to me closer than Virginia creeper on a stucco wall. She smelled like gardenias and lavender. Or was that the garden?

“Oh, Mr. Begonia,” she said in the kind of voice that would thaw permafrost in Minsk, “I hope my gardenia perfume doesn’t clash with the lavender from my bubble bath.” (I could sense this was her opening gambit. Even though I didn’t know what a gambit was, this had “gambit” written all over it.)

“No,” I said, but they’re both clashing with the heliotrope you have planted somewhere around here.”

“That’s not heliotrope, “ she cooed. “I just baked a cherry pie. Would you like some?”

“Not unless you have Neopolitan ice cream on it.”

“Oh, Mr. Begonia,” she said in a way that made me itchy all over. (On the other hand, it could have been any one of a half dozen things in the garden that aggravate my skin allergies.)

“Oh, Mr. Begonia,” she repeated, starting to get on my nerves, “I’m in trouble.” (She had come to the right guy. Trouble is my middle name. Actually, Sebastian is my middle name, but I try to keep it quiet.)

She moved closer, smothering me like sooty mold on a basswood. The scents of gardenia, lavender, and heliotrope (or was that cherry pie?) covered me like aphids on a hybrid tea. The twilight sky was a Mediterranean azure, streaked with crimson. My metaphors were spinning out of control. Now I was really in trouble–I was thinking like a bad garden writer. I had to snap out of it.

Reeling, I stepped back and fell…into a patch of Euphorbia polychroma. Cushion spurge. It did cushion my fall, but I was going to itch for weeks. Dermatitis is my middle name. (Some people think it’s Sebastian, but that’s a ruse. Or a gambit. I’m not sure which.)

When I looked up, she was gone.

I never did figure out why things were too perfect. Or why she was in trouble. And I’ll never forget the smell of her in that garden.

To this day, the scent of cherry pie sends me reaching for the 10 percent solution.

Here’s looking at you, Sam.

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questions

What is the best time to plant a tree in northern Illinois?

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?

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?

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