A Life Changing Class

February 25, 2011

Yesterday, I emailed my arborist and asked him when he could take down my honey locust trees. I received a very snappy email in return. “Why,” he asked, “do you want to take these trees down?” I replied that they had cankers and one is in a very bad site. I could hear the “hmphf” coming back over the internet. “Who,” he demanded, “told you it has cankers?”

He is a very protective arborist. Actually, I think of him as an Ent.

When I explained that the Master Gardener Coordinator identified it, I could sense the mollification. He has agreed to come out and take a look. If he doesn’t think it’s cankers, I’m in for an argument. See? He’s really an Ent.

Today was the Good Greg and the topic was turf – grass, sod, or as Neatnik Neighbor likes it, The Green Carpet. I opened the binder to take a peel n stick nametag from my sheet. When I peeled it off, I noted that there are only two left now – only two more classes after this.

I expected this class to be a ho-hum of the four step weed and feed process, with lots of chemicals being thrown about, talk of weedwhacking and mowing with all the accompanying fumes and emphasizing time intensive maintenance.  You know, just what Neatnik Neighbor does; mowing three times a week (I kid you not – it’s alot of fumes), hauling and spreading bags and bags of fertilizer, grub control, watering surreptitiously throughout the night to ignore the village water restrictions – wreaking environmental havoc in general.

Was I in for a shock. This class has changed my whole thought process of a healthy lawn and what it takes to maintain it. Greg explained that while there is still that segment of the population that will put their heart and soul (and pots of money and time) into the pursuit of the Ultimate Green Lawn, more and more people are concerned about having a lawn that is sustainable, more responsible for the environment and for their families. Greg mentioned again, as have most of the MG teachers, that phosphorus is being removed from fertilizers across the board, as it’s very seldom necessary and the runoff just causes problems in our water supply.

Greg then made a statement that rocked my world – the Scott’s four step process is baloney. He said (rather sarcastically) that’s it the biggest marketing success in the history of the world – making something completely unnecessary seem absolutely vital to the American grass grower (I felt slightly ashamed of my vocation at that moment). He said that the system actually perpetuates the problems “cured” by the system. Fertilize the right way, at the right time, and you’ll never have issues. You may not have The Green Carpet in August, but what you will have will actually be a healthier lawn.

The Green Carpet, he explained, is actually plants under an amazing amount of stress, as the grass is being forced to behave in a way that is completely unnatural. Green lawns in August are not happy lawns. A lawn should be dormant in late summer, not so green and rather crinkly at the edges. A happy lawn is green in April, May and June, begins to brown in late June, July and August, greening up again in September and October. All the artificial feeding and watering is what brings all the grubs and bugs that people feel the need to then dump pesticides on. Those grubs love those juicy roots and will eat right through them, leaving a removable layer of green, like a bad toupee. When raccoons discover a lawn has grubs they can rip the whole yard up in just one night – your very own Meigs Field.

Greg talked about the difference between seeding and sodding. He talked about soil preparation and about how we need to till down 4 to 6 inches to really make a nice bed for those seeds. He talked about Roger Bausen, known as The Sodfather.

He told us it’s best to leave all your clippings – always. If it’s impossible for aesthetic reasons (you just can’t handle the sight of 1/4″ pieces of grass drying for a day or two), then throw them in your compost pile. He asked us how often we get our mower blades sharpened (I thought “Tony got that done a few years ago”) and then recommended sharpening twice a season, in April and in July. Whoops.

Then he talked about The Holy Grail of Lawn Maintenance – core aeration. This process, best accomplished in the fall, removes a 4-6″ deep plug of grass, about 1″ wide, every 2″ or so, is the ultimate in spa treatments for your lawn. It breaks down any thatch and prevents it from forming again. It provides space for air and water to get those roots growing deeper and thicker. Waiting two or three days and using your mower to chop those dried plugs all up and sift them all back into the lawn adds wonderful natural nutrients, just the right amount of everything – with nary a Scott’s bag in sight.

Watering is basically unnecessary, Greg said. If you get 1/2″ of water every two weeks, that will keep your grass alive. To keep it really green, just 1″ of water a week is required. He suggested putting empty tuna cans around your yard to measure how much water is really falling from your irrigation system.

Oh. My. Garden. Gods. I can have a healthy lawn. I can have a lawn with very few weeds. All without chemicals. I cannot wait to rent a core aerator – I’ll do it this spring when the yard is just moist – I’m too excited. I cannot wait to see the improvement that this will wrought. I could barely stay in my seat. I wanted to get on the phone with Home Depot to reserve an aerator right then and there.

Greg explained sod web worms and leafhoppers and spider mites and rust. He went through moles and voles and raccoons and skunks. He talked about weeds and then I made my Big Mistake. I asked, “so if you’re not a fan of weed and feed type of products, what would you do if you had an area just filled with weeds, when the rest of the lawn is relatively okay?”, thinking about my area of Very Sad Lawn Care. He asked if I had tried Round Up and I replied that I had tried vinegar.

I thought a bomb had exploded in the room. Every veteran MG (there are many in the class), Nancy and Greg himself exclaimed loudly. “VINEGAR? Who told you to use VINEGAR?!?!” I was so very taken aback – I stuttered and said I didn’t remember – somewhere online- a gardening magazine- an article in the paper about organic gardening.  You would have thought I had poured used motor oil into the water supply.

“NEVER,” I was told, “are you EVER to recommend something that is not university-approved. We represent the U of I extension and all their research and their conclusions. We cannot recommend off label. EVER.”

Defensively, (wouldn’t you be too?) I thought, “Well, geez. I wasn’t recommending it, I was using it myself.”.  Autotroph Woman and the Autotrophettes all looked at me in sympathy and whispered that there is nothing wrong with vinegar, that’s it’s a good environmental choice. Who would have imagined there would be this bonding moment over salad dressing?

The Vinegar Issue lasted for several minutes. How embarrassing.

Towards the end of the day, Greg talked about organic methods of keeping insects from plants. He mentioned clove oil, lemon oil, neem, baking soda. Then he mentioned acetic acid.

Yep. Vinegar.


My little bit of Eden is firmly in Zone 5. That’s an important thing for me – and other gardeners – to know, to select plants that thrive and survive in our environment. Plants hardy to Zone 5 can survive temperatures as low as -20 degrees.

Then there are these little spots in the yard known as “microclimates.” They can be colder spots, like where the winds swirl and blow, freezing the ground earlier, deeper and thawing later. But wonderfully, they can be warmer spots, where a house or fence protects an area from wind, where the ambient heat of the structure keeps the ground from completely freezing and where it gets toasty much quicker.

I have a microclimate, right outside of my front door, to the east of the front walk. It is next to the house and over the sewer outtake. This bed is temperate because of the heat from the house, the sun shining right on the brick and  the often-warm water piped underneath. The daffodils planted here are so very happy. They are already inches high, lime green, emerging from the mulch and lasagna compost.

I grab a rake and scrape all the compost leavings into a pile next to the house, where I’ll cover it with mulch in a few weeks. The daffodil shoots stand shining against the shredded wood, such a joyful harbinger of spring. They are the ones who start the party – the flowers that get the music started, the blooms who dance first in the cold rains of spring, happy, bright yellow faces that make everyone grin with the glee of promise.

Around in the back, I rake again, all the dog land mines that have accumulated in the grass over the winter. Ick, ick, ick. I rake back and forth, up and down, all along the patio, behind the house and beside the fire pit. I rake by the pond. Not only do I get the dog waste, I also rake up dead grass and leaves. I push it all into the grasses bed.

Oh, did that feel GOOD. Just that little bit of raking, that little bit of fresh air and effort, that little bit of real gardening did my soul and my body and my mind so so much good. I had a smile that lasted all day.

There is still a dusting of snow, like blown sugar, around the pin oak, circling the gazing ball stand. The pond is thawing. Just a layer of ice floats on top, pocked and uneven. I put my toe onto the ice, shifting my weight to see how thick it is. After more and more pressure, my shoe breaks the crust, creating a dent and a seep of water.

The pit compost in the black container has shrunk seemingly overnight. Just days ago, it was filled above the brim; today there is plenty of room for more. There are oak leaves everywhere, covering the bump by the pond, smothering the bellflower, the hydrangeas, the garlic chives – everything covered in brown. Something has been digging in the shade bed, but I’m not concerned. It was almost definitely a squirrel, hiding acorns that she’ll never find. Not a single daffodil emerging there. This bed is much colder and much more wet.

Back in the front, next to the driveway, there are a few more shoots, enjoying the reflected heat of the concrete. There are no signs of the hyacinths yet. There are delicate green leaves emerging on in the grasses bed on the other side of the drive. I am not sure what it is yet. I notice the sedum is starting to unfurl, tiny sage-colored rosettes clustered at the bottom of the dead stems. I push into the dried yarrow, looking for green, and unleash a fragrance, tangy and clean, like lavender on steroids, sharp and fresh. It covers my hands.

I take a long look at my beginnings of a new bed along the fence from the fall. With the new plan, this will have to move.

From the gutter spout, which should be directed into the rain barrel, but moves constantly – I need to just move the blasted rain barrel – there is an icicle melting. I crouch and watch the water sheet down the spear, round at the bottom, bead, swell and drop. I watch again and again, making literally dozens of photos to try to capture a drop actually in motion. Only one merely acceptable photograph results out of the bunch.

Watching water drops – what a peaceful, relaxing occupation.

A closer look at the sedum in the back bed under my office window reveals more and more and more rosettes, winking lima-bean colors through the dirt.

Later, Tony calls me as he lets the dogs out – “Grab your camera!” I hear the tick and shudder of hail falling on the patio. The pea-sized ice pellets sheet down, bouncing everywhere, making the concrete slicker and slicker. The hail showers on my hair, clicks against my jacket, pounding harder and harder. It falls into my open hand, round and cold. It pops up from the patio, from the pond and from the bridge. It covers everything like shattered glass. The deluge begins to soften, it lessens, trickles off and nearly stops. Just a tick here and there, then nothing – it is finished.

Maybe that was winter’s last real hurrah – a blast of sequins and glitter thrown from the sky – because the real party is just getting underway.

An Exciting New Direction

February 22, 2011

At class Friday, I showed Nancy the photograph of that strange wet lump in the crotch of the honey locust tree. She looked at it and pronounced it slime mold. “Ah,” she said. “You have much bigger problems. See these blown-out patches of bark?” she asked. “That’s canker and that tree has to go.”

“I love you,” I declared. “I love you too,” she answered then asked “Why?” I explained how I really hate where that tree is placed, how the one side has to be whacked back to keep it off the house, how she has now absolved my guilt entirely for taking down a tree and how her pronouncement will help in telling my husband the tree has to go. “Any time,” she said. She asked for the photo to pass it around the class and shared my delight in taking the tree down. She also mentioned the husband thing. Apparently, Master Gardeners are also in the business of resolving marital issues stemming from poor plant management.

When I got home, I took a look at the other honey locust and sure enough, it’s got the same cankers. I wasn’t thinking about taking that one down, but –

Well! This now opens up all new opportunities for our backyard. Tonight, I rummaged through my filing cabinets looking for the plat of our house, which shows the house in relation to the lot. I found it, taped it back together (what was THAT about?) and scanned it into the computer. I printed out a few copies and went to work.

I pulled out the notes I made from landscape design and found some of the “basic” ideas – curves, diagonals, arc and circles. First I sketched in circles, leaving rounds of turf. Because of the wedge shape of the yard, I wound up with a very unpleasant look. When I tried conjoining circles, I got a snowman of grass. Ummm, no. I erased that completely – it was not even worth putting to the side.

Next I worked with curves, blowing out what is already there, putting muscle in the curves, as Greg recommended. Not bad, not bad at all.

Last, I considered diagonals, using the lot line on the east as the angle to follow. I created straight-edged beds, full of right angles and strong lines. I added a slash of bed along the front sidewalk, opened up a bed to include the veggie garden and added places to put benches and seats. I put those strong diagonals in the backyard, the side and the front.

WOW. I love this look. It compliments the architecture of the house, it’s different, and I can easily maintain the edges. I’m reshaping what exists and adding a few new beds, but it’s not a drastic makeover. My next step is moving this onto a gridded sheet so I can be sure of measurements, but in my mind, it’s already dug, the soil is spread and the plants are getting placed.

Rain, rain and more rain today. On top of all the melting snow, sheets come down all day and we even get a burst of thunder. Quiet Neighbor is flooded and there is so much water that the mulch path cannot drain; there are puddles sitting in the low areas. Everything is sodden and soaked.

EXCITEMENT!! The first tiny bits of daffodil creeping up in the front bed – it’s TRUE! Oh HOORAY! Spring is really and sincerely on its way. The rain rolls down my arms and back, but I can ignore it, knowing that these flowers are ready. They’ve had enough! Warm weather and green, green, green is on its way!

Friday, our Master Gardener class instructor was a very renowned landscape designer. He has designed for public institutions, private estates and competitions. We received an email preparing us for Greg’s arrival – a very big deal was made out of his presence.

To begin, he spent a great deal of time telling us about his creative life, his creative daughters and his creativity, all the while urging us to recognize that he’s just an ordinary guy. It was blindingly obvious that we were not really to think of him as ordinary in any way.

His power points were filled with lovely examples of landscapes – formal, informal, Asian, English and more – all shapes and sizes. He showed us before, during and after photos, explaining a bit of the philosophy behind a few of them. They were simply beautiful – inspiring desire for clipped hedges, regular patterns and charming seating areas.

He did not talk much about balance or unity or repetition. He talked about scale for a bit, and spent a lot of time on shapes, both negative and positive. He talked about how the shape of your “leftover” turf is just as important, and in some cases more important, than the shape of your beds. Interesting…never considered it for landscape and I think about it every day for graphics because it’s vitally important.

He talked about having enough benches in a garden, using them as focal points. I liked that idea – more places to sit means more places to enjoy, take a moment, look around at what’s growing. Definitely something to implement this summer.

At lunch, he chatted with Autotroph Woman and the Autotrophettes. They have taken his classes at JJC and absolutely worship him. It was quite apparent that he believes this is completely justified.

He handed out a grid and carefully explained that each square represented 2 feet in a landscape, and asked us to draw a 4 foot square table. He went around the room checking that we’d drawn it in correctly. He asked us to draw a car, 8 feet by 16 feet. And went around the room again, checking. Many people were confused – and I was so confused by that.

It was then that I realized my art degree and my work gave me a thorough, instinctive knowledge of these concepts. I’ve been working in grids for decades (god, has it been that long?), daily plotting in proportion, planning negative and positive spaces, considering form and texture and balance and repetition and color. A switch flipped – transfer my experience in graphic design to plants and beds and I could nail this thing. Wow – I’ve been really dumb about this for a really long time.

Greg talked of workshops in New Harmony, Indiana and in Rome, where only gourmet food is served and where the most creative people partake in his glorious wisdom.

Yeah, I’ll take a pass on that.


February 17, 2011

A decidedly un-Februaryesque day today, warming into the 60’s, but still not a day of complete satisfaction – there is no sunshine.

I open the window in my office, letting in fresh air for the first time in months. One would think that today would smell of spring but it does not. I go outside to breathe deeply and make sure.

Dirt, dirt and dirt everywhere. Last year’s foliage is matted and slimy on the ground, the ridges on what’s left of the snow are picked out with some kind of soot. The rain barrel spout is on the ground, feet away from the barrel. Containers throughout the garden are tilted, drunken pots staggering through the garden. Seed from the cardboard feeders pocks the ground around the groovy bench. The pond is low, even with all the melting snow.

There is the sound of running water, rushing, trickling, melting, ebbing away. Quiet Neighbor’s yard is flooded and Fenced-In Neighbor is too. Our berm, with its piles of soil, yards of hidden roots and layers of mulch, holds the water back, out of our yard. The stream runs behind the berm, through drainpipe and above drainpipe, to the sewer at the edge of the fence. I check to make sure there is no obstructions and see that it is indeed running quickly. There is just so very much to wick away.

The pumpkins, recently crushed by drifts of snow, are well and truly smashed. They are flat, like air let out of a balloon, like a cartoon roadkill. Strangely, the stems are still sticking straight up into the air. I can’t help but laugh at the picture they present.

I hear a cardinal calling.

In the front, I find Christmas light hangers amongst the crushed peonies. The grids are flattened, taking the peony stems and leaves right along with them. I pick up the top of the black rain barrel and replace it, getting snow in the holes of Tony’s crocs, chilling my toes.

The spinach in the veggie garden is still green, still crisp and looks still edible, even after it has been frozen, covered with snow and frozen again. “Hardy” seems to be a gross underrepresentation of its temperature tolerance.

I take another breath. Nope – not a whiff of real spring yet, even though the cardinal continues his song. That smell is more than warmth for just one day. That smell comes from insects and worms moving again, from soil breaking and turning with new growth. And from sunshine, sunshine, sunshine.


February 16, 2011

Melting down today. It gets warmer and warmer this week, giving us a flirt of spring, a taste of the warmth to come. It is happening so quickly. I cannot get my head around the fact that February is more than halfway through.

More and more grass, not green yet, but still brown. The ornaments that sit on the windowsill behind the glider were buried in all the snow that blew up onto the porch and then fell in the meltdown. I find them laying behind the glider, askew on the cement.

We’ve been lasagna composting in the front beds now. The bin and containers in the back have been inaccessible because of the snow and Lucky will eat anything that falls within reach of his leash (sigh….) so we can’t throw things back there right now. In the front, because of the snow, we’ve missed the beds and there are brussel sprout trimmings on the sidewalk. I find a potato has settled in the copper ladle that holds water for butterflies in the summer. I pull the potato out. It is soft and squishy and has that pukey rotten smell. I throw it under the clematis and imagine I hear the soil saying “thank you!”

I check the purple clematis and discover that our Seussian friend, now bald, has made it through the winter unharmed.

In the evening, the Burpee catalog takes up my time – first a quick scan, then a flip back to the front to truly absorb everything. My next step will be sitting down with paper and pen, drawing up a list of what I want where. My little vegetable garden is just not sufficient, but tomatoes can be planted outside the fencing – the Damn Rabbits don’t eat them – giving me more room for peas, beans and spinach.

There is a lovely combination of yellow, hot pink and pink-and-white striped zinnias called Raspberry Lemonade. I find that just perfect.

A Valentine For The Birds

February 14, 2011

Today is the day for sweethearts, for lovers and for birds. It’s Valentine’s Day and it also, in ancient lore, is the day that birds choose their mates for the year. But no one is doing any choosing in my garden today.

The air is quiet and has been all day. A squirrel or two has visited, but no avian friends. There is no chatter, no rush of wings. The snow is beginning to shrink, melting in strange patches, making me wonder what is generating heat and why, but it is still too cold for birds to truly make an appearance.

I walk the yard, looking at brown grass now instead of snow drifts. Ah! I find the lid to the last black rain barrel. It blew against the fence and was covered in snow for the last two weeks. I do not have snow boots on today, so I leave it against the fence for now, still surrounded by drifts.

I remember a February 14th years ago, when Tony humored me by agreeing to a picnic at Plum Creek Nature Center to celebrate the birds, complete with grilled hot dogs (almost immediately frozen) and toasted marshmallows (also quickly frozen. A toasted, frozen marshmallow is quite the unique experience – try it sometime). The kids shivered by the wooden table, drinking Capri Sun juice pouches with mittened hands, leaving broken potato chips for the squirrels. We walked the paths in hopes of seeing some birds, any birds, but it was just too cold. We didn’t see a single feathered animal – they were all huddled in nests, preserving their warmth and energy. (That whole story about February 14th being Birdy Hook Up Day really must be baloney). Tony finally smiled at me and said, “I think we’re done, don’t you?”

Tony hates being cold, he hates snow, he loathes winter. When I think back to that picnic, dragging my family out in the cold cold cold to attempt to watch birds that had more sense to stay snuggled than I did, it makes me understand how much of a Valentine Tony truly is – each and every day.

I had made hot chocolate and stored it in a thermos to warm us up after our walk. By that time, it was cold too.

Missing Winter

February 13, 2011

Five days ago, the air outside was dangerously cold, so cold that just minutes outside would cause frost bite to exposed skin.

Today, it felt like spring. It was mild and breezy, refreshing and new. The shovel scraped snow and dog dirt from the patio as I pushed it into the flower beds. I shaved ice and slush into the gardens, leaving a pile of immovable ice in the shady corner. Tony reminded me that it will melt this week.

The ground is soaked, saturated and filled to the brim. I hope that gravity is doing its thing, sucking all that water down down down, so my plants don’t drown. The firepit is filled with water, up to ground level. Bright white when the sun hits it, brown and sooty when it does not.

I took down the torn seed sock and removed all the cardboard bird (really squirrel) feeders, throwing them in the yard waste bin. There is still thistle seed everywhere, with Damn Rabbit scat mixed into the party. The snow is still so high that I was walking inches off the ground, level with the rim of the flower pots. When I passed under the arbor, I brushed my head on the top railings. I felt like Frankenstein.

I crouch on the bridge to make a photograph and feel the warm air, enjoy the sun and pause to consider for a moment. We are on the downswing now, firmly moving out of winter and hurtling into spring, just 5 weeks away. There are just 34 more days of winter, 34 more days of this project.

With my newfound Master Gardening knowledge, I take a good long look at that honey locust and see that another branch will have to some down this spring, the lowest one closest to the house. All this looking up and considering pruning cuts opens my eyes to a growth the size of a baseball in the crotch of the tree. It’s brown and shiny, like something that oozed out of something else not too long ago.

After pruning, the tree will look unnatural, a long naked trunk with a top heavy swing of branches on the north side only. (A stunning example of stupidity – this is planted only 12 feet from the house, when it has a spread of 35 to 40 feet. The only tree is 25 feet away – perfect!) I’m going to print out a photograph for Nancy and ask her opinion this Friday, but I’m starting to mentally prepare myself for a thumbs down. This ruins the hammock location completely.

My mind starts to consider alternatives. Do I buy two beams, like those for building a porch, and sink them into the ground and hang it that way? Do I find a frame so we can move it all around the yard – catching sun and shade as we (well, me) desires? Do I get steel posts that can be hammered into the yard but removed each winter – or as the mood strikes?

On the side of the house, I analyze where I envision the three step compost bin and pace it off. Yes, there is a generous 9 feet between the air conditioner and the first pine tree but – ack – there is sprinkler head right in the middle of where all the action would be. I sigh and think again, consider moving the fir tree now over 6 feet high. I make a mental note to tell Dominic to dissemble the lacrosse net; it is used so very seldom anymore. AH! The lacrosse net! Where that sits must be an easy 9 feet across and when I pace it out -yep! That’s my compost bin spot for next summer, and it’s more accessible than the original spot.

I love it when problems are solved!

Water sits on top of the sprinkler system boxes, which means it’s not draining anywhere. There is Damn Rabbit scat everywhere, which makes me wonder where it is all summer long. I see it along the top of the berm in warm weather, but not everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, like it is now.

Maybe unbridled access to thistle seed causes unruly bowel movements in the Leporidae world.

I continue my wanderings and perusing, comfortable in the temperature. I know this is just a wicked moment of warmth, a ersatz window into spring that will slam shut shortly. The cold will descend again. After this week’s melt down, another round of snow will pack us in. It is unseasonably warm today and unreasonably cruel. I know winter is not over, but something strange has happened this year. Because I’ve focused on the garden, because I’ve made a point to get outside and look around and notice wonderful things, I have not noticed how quickly time has passed. I have not whined about bad weather or counted the days without sun. I have enjoyed each snowfall, each gust of wind, each blast of arctic air. I cannot fathom how, by the calendar, we are halfway through February already – my attitude still thinks it’s early January. Winter is just not sinking in at all.

Which means when those daffodils start humming underground in next 3 weeks or so, I’ll miss it completely.

Insects today in Master Gardening! I was certainly looking forward to this one, all about those creepy crawly bugs we share the garden with.

Whoa – one of Russ’s first statement is that 90% of your life is spent within 10 feet of a spider. That’s almost 22 hours every day just three steps away from somebody with a lot more legs than you. Isn’t nature a BLAST?

Russ presents a large poster with different insects and asks us to identify them and explain if they are beneficial or a pest. There is the Japanese beetle, a mosquito, a Monarch butterfly, caterpillars. At least 97% of all insects, he explains, are beneficial. Some of the 3% is our own doing, like that Japanese beetle. I don’t have them because my neighbor across the street is a prolific and constant lawn waterer. They don’t want my thin and pathetic grass; they’ll stay right in his yard and feast on the green carpet.

There are about 18,000 species of insect in Illinois alone. There are more types of beetles, over 360,000, than any other living creature in the world.

Russ tells a story about a man who brought in his wife’s bra, completely infested with grain beetles. He didn’t believe Russ’s diagnosis because his wife kept a fastidiously clean home – how could there be grain beetles in the closet? Three weeks later, the man called back with an apology. They had forgotten all about that therapeutic pillow filled with buckwheat, undisturbed on a shelf for over 2 years. The eggs, always present, were left to hatch, reproduce and thrive – and provide a wonderful surprise to his wife when she donned those foundation garments.

I learned that chemicals should always always always be a last resort, used only in cases of health concerns or a huge financial impact. That I liked. Insecticides are non-selective which means you kill beneficial insects right along with pests, and the beneficials have a much more difficult time of recovering. I learned that handpicking bagworms is very effective and that Japanese beetles can be knocked off branches and drowned in a pan of soapy water sitting under the plant.

I learned there is an insect, Galerucella sp, that is being used to halt the spread of the invasive purple loosestrife. Dragonflies are the dinosaurs of the insect world – an Old World species – and cannot fold their wings.

I learned that I’m making a larger effort each week of not visibly rolling my eyes at Autotroph Woman and her sycophants. Today, at the first break, she made mention of some bug fact she considered missing from Russ’s session and said, “Maybe he doesn’t know that.”

Seriously? Your horticultures classes for a few semesters has educated you so far above and beyond someone who is a U of I professor, has worked in agriculture and on research projects for decades and actively cultivates and manages a farm that’s been in his family for almost 200 years? If the seat wasn’t so perfect, if the view wasn’t so ideal from that table, if I hadn’t made friends with Jackie, I would sit somewhere else next week.

I learned, astonishingly, that an entire colony of African killer bees can be tamed just by replacing their Queen with a Russian or Italian honeybee Queen. (Why not American, you ask? Why, we’re a democracy!) It has something to do with food the Queens feed the bees and a shared mindset. Doesn’t that just blow your mind??

When Russ began talking of spiders, I couldn’t stop an earworm of “I Don’t Like Spiders And Snakes”, but learned that a wolf spider runs so quickly that it actually chases down its prey. I learned there was an infestation of brown recluse spiders at the Grundy County Jail not too long ago and that recovery from their extremely toxic bites can take over a year.

I learned that Autotroph Woman & Co. cannot keep their mouths shut during a lecture and can ignore the Hostile Glance, the Throat Clearing and even the ultimate, An Annoyed Eyeball From Instructor. (These women really need to go back to kindergarten to learn the rules of courteous listening.) If something isn’t done, I’m going to learn how to tape their mouths closed.

Russ talked of collecting and pinning insects for collection, forever banishing all guilt about killing rare specimens. (I’ve already started searching for the pins online.) He spoke of the many people who think their gardens should be perfect, with every leaf a perfect tribute to the species, nothing chewed or sucked or poked. He said that insects have their place and with proper selection, adequate diversity and good health, damaging insects should be few in the garden. And those you can learn to live with.

“Learn to live with a little damage,” he said. What a concept – that could make all of life so much sweeter. When we understand that no relationship is perfect, no husband or wife a faultless satisfier of our every need or emotional twinge, we appreciate what we actually have. When we comprehend that our jobs aren’t going to be fulfilling every moment of the workday, our homes are not going to stay spotlessly clean, that our relatives will sometimes (often) drive us up the wall, we can relax and look at all the beautiful gifts all around us. We can stop worrying about unattainable goals and set realistic benchmarks. We can make progress and feel good about each step of the way.

The damage is what makes us human, what makes us real and true. It’s what makes us appreciate the unblemished so much more, revel in the positive, bask in the blessings and the boons. I can live with that.

The Perfect Geek Accessory

February 9, 2011

On our first day of Master Gardening weeks ago, Greg had a book. It was thick; the size of our manuals and really ugly on the front, just a plain white cover with black type and one photograph.

But then – when it was opened – ! Information and photos, photos, photos and more information! It’s like the fast-track to plant nerdhood, a guidebook to becoming a garden geek.

For several weeks, I dithered. I went through the whole “do I need this, or do I want it?” argument. After a particular arduous day, I clicked “Photographic Atlas of Botany and Guide To Plant Identification” in my Amazon cart,  and hit “buy.”

And now it is mine. Pages and pages of names, photographs that clearly explain plant parts, cross sections of ovaries, everything identified in detail. The plants are grouped into families, which help make connections for structure and then later insect pests and diseases. This is a perfect book to scan and skim, then start back at the beginning and soak it all in. It will be a valuable reference when MG volunteering begins for me, and in my own garden. It was well worth the investment and not worth the dithering.

And I know my mom will want to borrow it.