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They Died with Their Roots On


There is no better part of the year for a gardener than right now, assuming you’re reading this around March or April and didn’t misfile your magazine and rediscover it in November. Gardeners love spring more than anything except puppies (you’d have to be a true evildoer not to like puppies) and wax eloquent with words like “rebirth,” “renewal,” “spring solstice” and “spring rolls.”

But if this is a time to look forward, it is also a time to peer into the rear view mirror at those horticultural casualties of the past 12 months. I always seem to have more than my fair share. Thus it is with a heavy heart that I present:

“In Memoriam: Mike’s Plants 2004-2005.”

I’m not sure what this says about me but my list consists entirely of indoor plants. I start with the beautiful amaryllis bulbs that I planted into lovely pots and watched produce spectacular blooms. I carefully cut back the stems and nurtured them through the summer in my outdoor garden. As fall approached, I decided to put them in an out-of-the-way spot in the garage where the soil could dry and the foliage die back. Then I forgot I had put them there. Then the temperature went down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Then I retrieved them and brought them into the house.

Who can spot the crucial mistake in the previous paragraph? Winners are invited to a party at my place to try my special Amaryllis Bulb Paté.

The next victim—I present these in no particular order—was the orchid given to me as a gift. Each year I invite the Orchid People on my radio show and each year they bring a beautiful flowering orchid as a present. A quick word about Orchid People: they are scarier than Bonsai People but not as scary as Carnivorous Plant People. Anyway, each year they bring me a fabulous plant and each year I kill it. Not purposely, of course (though my shrink has a slightly different opinion). I think that part of the problem is that my house has less light than most of Chicago’s Deep Tunnel—which, by the way, empties into my basement, but that’s a subject for a column on rain gardens. And I just refuse to set up a special light because, well, because that would make me one of the Orchid People! Of course, I haven’t always killed my orchid plants by withholding light. I’ve been known to withhold water, too. And then there’s the time I dropped a table on a Cattleya, which is an orchid, not a bovine, and, uh…hmm. You know what? My shrink might have a point.

We now move on to my rubber plant, which was a fairly good-looking specimen until I got my hands on it. Its botanical name is Ficus elastica, but just try to stretch one. I took a look at its cultural preferences on a website and noticed that it likes “warm to average” room temperatures during the day: “75-80 degrees F.” Average? Maybe I’ll keep my living room that warm when I start my indoor butterfly collection. The same website says that the plants are adaptable to low-light conditions but it doesn’t say anything about Deep Tunnel conditions (see Orchids, above).

So I watched my plant get leggier and leggier (maybe that’s where the stretching comes in) and more and more pathetic looking. It’s at this point that most people get creative with their plants. They use them for door stops and ashtrays and hat racks and cat boxes. But they just can’t pull the trigger and put the plant out of its misery. Heck, you could put a popsicle stick in a potting mix and if you told gardeners it was going to grow, most of them would ignore the “Good Humor” logo and water it faithfully for years. And then, even after they stopped watering it, they would still keep it on the window sill, hoping against hope that this little stick that they stopped watering years ago might, on some Wednesday morning, suddenly start bearing tropical fruit. Not me, baby. I stuck ol’ Ficus elastica out in the yard on one of those 5 degree nights. Done. Over. Finito. See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya.

Lately, however, I’ve been having strange dreams about Rubber Plant People grabbing me by the arms and legs and trying to stretch me across the opening of Deep Tunnel. I hate it when my shrink is right.

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questions

Is it possible to plant and grow Italian cypress in the Chicago area? Are our winters too severe for it? If they are, is there an alternative conifer that will provide a similar look?

With all the emphasis on growing fresh vegetables, I think I should use a cold frame but I am not sure what to do or how to go about it. Any ideas?

I have twelve beautiful blooming violet plants on my office desk, placed 12 inches from a light source that’s kept burning day and night. I water them from the bottom and let the water remain in the saucer.

No matter what I spray, I continue to have gnats and other insects in my soil. I also occasionally start to get yellow spots on the tips of the leaves and then the spots start going down the leaves. What’s going on here?

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