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The fairy gardener: being eccentric
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Jim Edminster

This article shared 2905 times since Tue Sep 4, 2012
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Being something of an eccentric gardener occasionally brings one up short. Filling my yard with blue painted discarded toy horses turns into My Little Ponyville after awhile—not exactly the image an upper-middle-aged bear like me wants to project. Serendipity stepped in to fix this problem. Trotting off to Market Days—the giant gayish Chicago street fair in my neighborhood—several weeks ago, I passed a frothing-at-the-mouth landlord screaming, "Hasn't paid his rent in five months. Hasn't lived here in three months. I'm throwing out all his stuff. Take anything you want!"

I indicated I wasn't interested in secondhand clothes or even (expensive) stereo equipment. But as my mother used to say when startled, "Judah's Priest! What's that?" "That" was a three-and-a-half-foot tall statue of a sasquatch? Yeti? Apeman? Quite fierce and striding vigorously toward one with a hostile look on its face, subsequently found to be a character from the remake of Planet of the Apes, I swooped him up, took him home and placed him coming around a bend, emerging from the phlox. I'm telling you I get a little frison of unease every time I pass him and I KNOW he's there. A friend's bulldog spotted him and wouldn't stop barking hysterically. I toyed with naming him Stevie (Sasquatch) or Yancy (Yeti) but after a moment's reflection (I can do that, you know), I realized I was approaching the gooey suburbs of My Little Ponyville again and he's just going to remain the thing ... in the ... garden.

I had a wonderful time at the Chicago Fairy Gardeners' last meeting, being social and all that, but a plant maven like me really wants to pick the brains of people like Steve Meyer, who helps run both the Garfield Park Conservatory and the Lincoln Park Conservatory. He had major gardening news: impatiens, the ubiquitous bedding plants, have been hit with what appears to be a so-far incurable fungus/mildew and folks may have to re-think their bedding plans for next year. Meyer's "folks" are thinking along the lines of using colored leaved coleus instead.

Meyer also identified my mystery plant that I've grown for five years and given away several times; however, I didn't know its name. I'd taken pics of the critter and they were stored on my camera. Meyer knew it immediately as petasites, AKA giant butterburr, and even showed me some in our host's yard. (It's a large roundish-leaved low-growing shade plant.)

Our hosts—Warren Jones and his partner, Bob Egan—live in Sauganash, a suburban-like enclave surrounded by the forest preserves on Chicago's Northwest Side. They have to deal with large plant eaters—deer—unlike the rest of us who deal with rats and rabbits. One way to deal with deer is to plant unpalatable plants. Jones has put in a long handsome edging bed of spotted pulmonaria (lungwort) that has an irritating covering of hair; he carried a bunch to plant while bare-chested and got a severe rash. They've had to curtail their hosta collection, a Bambi brunch item, but the deer seem to leave the giant pots of canna alone (striped yellow and green leaves with orange flowers = Pretoria; leaves split between red and green sections with equally split yellow and red flowers = Cleopatra).

There was a relatively untouched variety of butterfly bush with pale purple bell flowers, rather like wisteria (= Lindley's Buddleia); in a fountain there was a floating fern, Azolla, a duckweed relative from the Southern United States. There was a pot of true red coleus, Red Head. A good-sized patch of a strange arum (think Jack-in-the-pulpit), pinellia, caught my eye—the flower looks like a long-tailed mouse is fleeing down it. A pot of three-foot-tall balsams of various colors was blooming covered with grape-sized seed pods looking like miniture kiwis. Lastly, there was a charming red-flowered tropical plant with large pale green and violet leaves. (I've probably misspelled it: episcia).

How's the rat situation by you? The mild winter meant many litters survived to wreak havoc in gardens. Their source is restaurants with inadequate waste disposal and/or demolished buildings. The city's rodent patrols are on overtime but a problem is that there is confusion about the patrols coming onto private property. Rats have an architectural bent: They want to build homes. If you have them in yards, you will see piles of dirt they've excavated. (Conversely, if all you see is ruined hostas or the like but no holes it's more likely you have rabbits. Rats don't care much for plain leaves.) Do not put meat anything in compost heap; as for food scraps like potatoes or tomatoes, you can still add them to your compost if you throw them in a blender and make a watered-down slurry to pour over your dead leaves. Oh, and rats will live in a dry compost so water it.

NPR has done a few Anglo-Saxon style riddles for its listeners lately. They're longer allusion-filled poems often describing a common object. They may use "kennings," Anglo-Saxon metaphorical comparisons such as "whale-road" for ocean or "swan's-way" for sky. Those Old English poets were quite raunchy but here's a medium hard non-sexy one for you all:

Gardeners know me - I'm common as clay;

My kenning name is the eye of the day.

Little kids give me to their mamas, et. al.

Disney used me for an aquatic gal.

Lovers disfigure me to make up their mind;

Banqueters may see me in places they dine.

If you're what is called a grammar obsessive,

What you need to do is put my name in possessive.

At that point in time

You'll have answered this rhyme.

I'm glad my next-door neighbors have a sense of humor. I got a tour of their house when they invited me to dinner. Their third-floor bedroom has large windows looking east but only one tiny one looking south to my house. The window perfectly frames a view of the back end of a blue horse I hung off my balcony.

And finally, I saw something picturesque on my upper deck: the blue handle of a broom encircled by a blooming pink morning glory. (Shows how often I use the broom.) When Phyllis Diller died recently, the New York Times put her obit on the front page along with a large selection of her jokes. This scene on my deck could have illustrated one of her zingers: "Housework won't kill you, but why take chances?"

This article shared 2905 times since Tue Sep 4, 2012
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