We finished Master Gardening class today by 1:30. I checked email, voice mail, dealt with a few clients from the front seat of my car and then headed to Sid’s Nursery. Their annual garden show and expo started this morning and will run today and Saturday.

The first year Eliza and I went, we had to park far away and take a shuttle back to the facility. It was packed with vendors, packed with people, packed with seminars. She and I had hot dogs, pop and chips for lunch, gathered bags of samples and bought a really nifty wedge-shaped tool for planting annuals in soft soil.

The following year, just me and less vendors, less people. Last year, even worse but this year, because of the improving economy and the growing interest in vegetable gardening, sustainability and more, I figured it would be a better year.

Ack. My first tip off was when I received the invitation email just a few days before the event – obviously, they weren’t too worried about me blocking out the space on my calendar. When I pulled up to the building, I found a parking spot right in the front row, with empty spaces all around. Inside, there were no maps, no who’s who of who’s here.

I found a show special just inside the door, metals rods topped with glass ornaments, perfect for acting as a hose guide to protect plants while being much more attractive (and functional) than the usual stubby little things. Around the corner, I looked at seed packets and rejected them as being pricey. In the bird feeding section, I found a seed sock and put that in the basket.

The pond display was filled with koi, those huge, colorful and slightly (okay, very) creepy fish. They were halfway out of the water, mouths gulping, wide and open, so I could practically see down into their stomachs. They are bright, they are interesting and they are icky.

African violets were also a show special, only $3 each, so one of those went into the basket, with a sheet of care instructions.

African violets grew on my great-grandmother’s enclosed back porch and I always think of her (STELLA!) when I see them. She was a simply massive woman, truly mountainous, reigning over my aunt’s house in Polish. There were just a few times – Christmas, I think – that I saw her out of her throne, a chair at the head of the kitchen table, demanding things and ordering her daughters about in Polish, watching her angel fish in the tank next to her seat. I was fairly terrified of her. It was not a child-friendly house and spending time there, being still and quiet with no games, toys or amusements, was absolute torture. The biggest thrill was playing with the steel encased pop-up address book on the desk. And that got very boring very quickly.

There were only a handful of vendors and they were all listless and uninterested, so beyond ennui that they didn’t even pounce on me as I walked by. I wandered into the compost section but didn’t find anything of interest. Out through the covered hallway, into the big tent and more disappointments. Hardly anything out there, either. I was too late for the hot dogs, too late for the hydrangea drawings. I did get a tiny pot of sweet basil to plant in the garden.

I stopped by the Radius display to look for a good pair of bypass pruners, the kind recommended by Russ, a MG educator. There were two ladies standing there, commenting on the uniqueness of the handles. I couldn’t help myself and broke into an endorsement of the tools, how they are the best you can possibly buy, how I just wouldn’t consider any other brand. The salesman looked at me and smiled, gave me a coupon for $2 off my pruners. The ladies selected transplanters to purchase and I told them they would never regret it.

I overheard a gentleman saying what a disappointment the show was, how it was shrinking each year. I nodded my head in agreement. On the way back out of the tent, I found three more garden stakes, these purely ornamental, looking like bright gerber daisies, happy and springlike.

A display with a poem about fairies caught my eye and I read it, words about how fairies bring flowers and live it them too. At the top of the table was a birdbath and the saucer was filled with delicate plants and the most charming, tiny wire arbor with a bench, a birdbath and a wheelbarrow. Just the place for fairies.

I’ve tried fairy gardens before, using dollhouse furniture. It quickly blows over, gets smashed by enthusiastic Damn Rabbits, lost or carried off by Borrowers – or maybe it’s furnishing Francine and Clarence’s winter home. These items had long sticks to push into the dirt, holding them in place throughout the season. After some deliberation – do I need this, or just want it? (want won out) – I placed them in my basket. I found a pink pot in which to place my African violet and headed to the check out.

Enough happiness in my findings so the trip was not a total waste, but I do not think I will go next year.


Down To The Wire

March 4, 2011

Today, Nancy mentioned that she thinks of Master Gardener trainees (that’s me) as “tender perennials”, which made us all smile, as some of the group are old enough to be heritage tomatoes.

It was warm when I walked to the building, my coat open, swinging purse, lunchbag (roast beef with avocado, yogurt, apple, orange and red peppers with Traders Joe’s tomato basil hummus) and black bag filled with book, notepad, and folder. Just one more nametag on the sheet after I peeled one off. Two ladies were discussing how they’d like to take everything again, especially the botany class, immediately, as it would really make more sense now.

I must agree.

Nancy opened with talk of volunteer requirements, of the final exam (100 questions – good grief) and the final lesson, plant pathology (that one ought to be a laugh riot, huh?). She talked about the importance of today’s topic, Integrated Pest Management or IPM. She mentioned that one of the first questions from homeowners usually is “What can I spray?” I got a little tense at that – spray to me is rather a dirty word.

Amy, the educator for the day, was a tiny dark-haired young woman, very interested in anything that ends in “cide” – as in herbicide, pesticide, insecticide and the like. She passed out a sheet with two sides of questions and asked us to fill out side one. Easy enough to circle “I never use any type of pest controls” and the why “I don’t want to harm the beneficial insects.” I commented that I just didn’t have pests – thinking no aphids, no chewing worms, no Japanese beetles – nothing of that ilk.

She began by explaining that a mower run for an hour does as much damage to the ozone layer as a car driven 20 miles. Homeowners typically apply 3-5 times as much chemical per acre as farmers and that everything – everything – everything comes with risk.

My assumption that “pest” is defined as insects that destroy plants was turned on its ear as she gave us a definition – an insect, plant, animal, disease or microorganism that is unwanted and out of place. Oh, yeah, I have pests. I have big, hairy, sharp-toothed, vicious, horrible, destructive, loathed, dreaded and frustrating pests.

I have Damn Rabbits.

Amy explained that the first step, the most critical aspect of IPM, is identification. You can’t get rid of a pest if you don’t know what it is. Discover the life cycle, its probability of causing any real or lasting harm and then determine the gardener’s acceptance level. Most of the times, Amy said, the answer is to do nothing – let nature take its course of migration, death or hibernation. Only 5-15% of influences are pests, she mentioned.

I really liked her approach; first, to see if doing nothing is the correct answer. Proceed to cultural controls, like making sure the right plant is in the right place, that it’s maintained and cared for. Then try physical methods, such as picking, pulling, whacking, mowing, hoeing, squashing, digging, covering, protecting, spraying with a blast of water. Biological methods should then be considered, like lady beetles for aphids, praying mantis – bringing in those predators (had me thinking of my pests and the possibility of importing a pack of coyotes). The last resort, Amy said, is chemical.

I love it when that’s the last resort. She also mentioned that there are many organic methods out there and read a list, which included – yep – vinegar. Everyone in the room looked at me and laughed. I must be the Vinegar Woman. Someone explained to Amy what had happened last week and she also smiled at me in sympathy. “Yes,” she said, “it must be recommended by U of I if you want to recommend it.” She said she anticipates U of I recognizing more organic methods soon – hang in there, she nodded at me.

She mentioned that geraniums keep mosquitos at bay. Japanese beetle traps make your problem worse by attracting beetles from all over the neighborhood – literally up to 5 miles away.

When Amy began the topic of “cides” in earnest, she explained the mantra for MGs and for everyone – The Label Is The Law. It’s all there, she told us. There is information about amount of dosage, frequency of application, first aid requirements, level of toxicity. The Label Is The Law.

She taught us how to read a label, what all the alerts mean – Caution means just that, tread carefully. Warning means the product is a little more dangerous and should be handled sensitively. Danger means that if you don’t follow that label, you could very well end up dead.

She talked about how safety levels are determined and brought up testing on mice (no response from the crowd), rats (a bit of an encouraging attitude in the air – who likes rats?) and then mentioned dogs. “AUGH,” the room erupted. “DOGS? Why dogs?” When she replied she didn’t make the rules, she didn’t perform the testing and gosh, it mostly seems to be beagles, one woman shouted out, “Beagles? Why beagles?”

Master Gardeners apparently don’t consider test subjects worthy of sympathy unless they are the common companion animals.

She explained the many effects they test materials for, including acute, carcinogenic, reproductive – about nine categories in all.  She then explained how they determine what’s safe for human – explaining that everything comes with risk and nothing is completely safe.

Testers take the smallest amount of material that affects a test subject, mathematically make that amount proportionate to a human’s size and weight and then divide that by ten. They then divide it by ten again, so if tests determine that 10 lbs of exposure shows no adverse effects, what is cleared for distribution turns out to be .1 pound. For children, they divide that by another ten, so a product may contain only .01 lb of a tested material.

She passed out two labels, described the problem of leafhoppers in a homeowner’s lawn and asked us to select the proper product. Well, neither of them were quite right, neither of the labels answered all the questions. When she called us back to order, she explained that it’s okay not to make a selection, because all the information was not there – don’t buy either product. She smiled and said, “And leafhoppers aren’t that big of a problem anyway. Tell that homeowner to just wait it out for a few weeks.”

I think it was a trick question.

At the end of the day, she asked us to answer the questions on her side two. What did I learn? I learned that using milorganite, chickenwire and barriers is indeed using an IPM. I also learned that no matter how small an amount of questionable material is in a product, I still don’t feel very comfortable using it.

Amy gave us all a pair of gloves, bright green and labeled with a website for more natural lawn care. I mentioned Neatnik Neighbor and his quest for perfection – she gave me a pair for him too.

P.S. At the farm store, I bought two beautiful spring toned pashminas for only $8.50 each. Yes, eight dollars and fifty cents.

The Gloves!! don't you love free stuff??

A Florida Kind of Day

March 1, 2011

A warm, breezy day today, whisking away the cold, the snow and the ice. Everything melts quickly, in strange patterns, with a puff of temperate air.

I call my mom in Florida and we talk as I walk the garden. In Sarasota, the warmth is unremarkable, the green unnoticed and the sunshine a given constant. Those snowbirds get their undies in a wad if the temperature drops below 75.

As much as my mom enjoys breakfast on the lanai, shorts and tank tops in February and that simply hysterical orange bucket beach hat (she is not a hat person and a bucket hat may be the least flattering of available headwear options), I know she misses the excitement of spring. For years, we’ve described weather to each other (conversations consist of vivid descriptions of wild temperature and precipitation variances on my side, regular statements of “75 and sunny” from her end) and then come March, I start telling her what’s coming up.

I tell her about the sedum starting to rosette above the soil, green little clusters of leaves, like petaled pearls. In the fire pit, the ice sheet seemingly hangs above the charred wood and there are perfect die cuts around the leaves, fine, thin ice melting in a wonderful, magical sculpture. It looks like lucite, like glass, shined and polished to a high gleam, round and clear and clean.

The pine tree is full of buds, brown and pink and perfect, each one holding the promise of a branch, new growth. The top leader stem is peppered with them, tempting me to make that prune, see what and how those buds would develop. Ah, but that cut would ruin the perfect little shape that nature is growing right now, so I keep those pruners in the garage.

The grass seed that I planted last fall is seamless, filled in and blended in. I now know that effort was rather useless and that the dandelions and sticker bushes will keep coming back. The heavy traffic – kids using this as a short cut to the school bus or, in summer, a place to ride bikes (yes, right through my lawn) into the next cul-de-sac – makes the grass impossible here. It cannot survive long term. Part of those landscape alterations will have to include a mulch path here; unless we build a fence, this situation will continue.

The oregano is beginning to green. The daffodils keep emerging, peeping from beneath the mulch, popping the heads of shoots through the shredded wood. There are green leaves here and there, sometimes too small and new for me to identify. Mom and I discuss the kids, her friends, my work and clients.

The moss in the flagstone is beginning to wake up from dormancy. There is new growth and it comes in shades of forest green, florescent teal, mint. It mounds up between the stones, swelling, soft and velvety.

Much excitement for both of us – me here in the garden and her in Florida – the red lilies are starting to emerge, white buds in the muds, looking rather Gollum-like, pale and bleached from the dark.

I tell her she is missing spring, missing all these amazing things. She tells me, nestled in a lawn chair in the sunshine faraway, that she is not missing it at all.

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.