I had just finished an environmental talk to a local gardening group. It was the usual advice. Don’t do an oil change on your car and spread the spent lubricant on your trilliums. Adding cigarette butts to your compost pile won’t necessarily kill the pathogens, though it may get them addicted to nicotine. When you have a soil test, always check for Strontium-90 in your tomato patch. In short, we’re all going to heck in a handbasket and there’s little you can do about it. Feeling pretty proud of myself, I said I would entertain questions from the now wide-eyed and terrified gardeners.
A woman on my right (which is “stage right” and “audience left” for those of you whose misspent youths and early adulthoods didn’t include long delusional stretches when you thought you were going to make millions of dollars as actors) calmly raised her hand and demanded: “What do you spray to get rid of chipmunks?”
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:
One of the great things about being a columnist is that when you run out of ideas you can steal them from other people. Not only the ideas, mind you, but the actual words. Especially when people write you and say things like, “My aunt spat on her tomato plants every day during the growing season for sixty-three years and you’ve never tasted better tomatoes” or “I’ve invented a trowel that is so ergonomically perfect that it doesn’t just help older folks dig in their gardens, it actually cures their arthritis and re-grows hair!”
Those of you who are regular readers of this column are no doubt already aware that actual horticultural content is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, gardeners are hungry for answers. Most of the time, they don’t even care about the questions. For example, you can ask, “What is the capital of Albania?” and as long as the answer is “spray with a fungicide every 10 days,” you have lifted 97.3 percent of all gardeners (and this number has been proven in scientific studies) into a Nirvana-like state.
Hoping in some way to cash in on this unnerving phenomenon, I began searching for an area in the horticultural realm that has remained relatively unexplored for which I could provide answers, regardless of whether a single question has ever been posed. Eureka! I found it:
“Hey, Gerry.” “ Morning, Al.” “ Where’s Carey?” “ They moved him to the front this morning.” “ No kidding. Think we’re next? “ You never know.” “ Well, I’m gettin’ tired of sittin’ around here. Use me or lose me, I say. Did you hear about Cal?” “ Yeah, poor guy. I thought he was doing well.” “ Well, he was always kind of stiff. You know?” “ Yeah.” “ Now he’s real stiff. Know what I mean?” “ Yeah.” “ Real stiff.” “ I get it.”
If ever there was dark side to an avocation based on goodness and light, it is the idea of a “gardening competition.”
Excuse me, I had to get a towel. My hands were suddenly very, very sweaty. It starts innocently enough. We discover that the sight of a simple daisy in bloom is soooo much cheaper than a shrink, so we carve out a plot of our own in the midst of the urban or suburban asphalt and concrete wilderness. A seed, some soil, a little water, a touch of tenderness. Excuse me, I had to get a facial tissue. I was tearing up a little there.
Do you sing in the shower?
Um, I know that’s kind of personal and you don’t need to tell me what kind of soap you use but the point is, do you sing there but nowhere else? I ask only because I know that there are people out there who feel, well, incompetent at certain skills. Singing is a common one. Public speaking is another. Sports, cooking, electronics, home improvement, fashion, and let’s not forget origami, are other areas where the taunts of childhood acquaintances, spouses and co-workers can breed a sense of insecurity that can haunt people their whole lives.
My computer is trying to tell me something. About gardening, no less. That can’t be good.
It’s not like pruners are some cutting-edge-21st-century-whiz-kid invention. Yet whenever I type the word pruners, it looks like…well, the way it does here on the screen. You know, with the funny red line beneath the word. As if to say, “This computer does not recognize the word “pruners.” Check your spelling and/or grammar and get back to me, Leo.” Hey, you clinking, clanking collection of caliginous junk, not only do I know how to spell pruners, I happen to own several, and I know how to spell the word because…because…they put it right on the package, I think.
Every day I receive letters (well, not every day, but every few days…actually, I occasionally receive letters ... okay, okay, I got one once—are you happy?) in the mail (to be precise, not the real, old-fashioned mail, but somehow they find their way to my desk ... my computer ... and they’re somewhat about gardening ... I mean, I assume that increasing your trowel size has something to do with gardening ... uh, by the way, don’t ever open an e-mail with that subject line) like this one from Rusty:
The day we brought her home from the nursery, we were the proudest parents on the block. We hadn’t always wanted one. In fact, the thought hadn’t really crossed our minds until we noticed how happy Kathleen’s brother and sister-in-law were with theirs. Slowly, irrevocably, the notion crept into our heads that perhaps it was time to make a commitment.
Still, I was the one who held back. Was I ready for this kind of a change? Could I handle the responsibility? What if I was found wanting?
As we sat in the yard and looked at her, tiny and green and purple, we thought about the years to come when we would share spring days and summer evenings and even snow-covered afternoons behind our house. I carried with me a mental snapshot of the three of us enjoying ourselves in the yard. I even had the perfect spot picked out for her, where she would always stand.
This, as I have been told by the esteemed staff of Chicagoland Gardening magazine, is the Ideas Issue.
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 ...
The experts looked at the evidence and gave these new plants a thumbs up. You will too.
If you are reading this article, you are probably already aware that monarch butterfly numbers in Illinois are way down.
Shrubs add valuable form, color and textural contrast to the garden.