Garden Confessions

Edward Lyon, Director-Horticulture, Allen Centennial Gardens, is not just a gardener; he’s an addict. Here, he shares insight into his passion for plants and provides an introduction to our collection of stories from local gardening enthusiasts.

I’m a garden extremist. I’m not just an avid gardener, but more accurately a rabid gardener; certainly something bit me and took voracious hold. This isn’t solely because of my role as a public garden director: my passion for home gardening directed me to horticulture as a second career. It isn’t my job that drives the personal passion; gardening as hobby directed me to the career. My current home landscape reveals a lust for ornamental plants so strong that the addiction drives me to continue buying plants to shoehorn into areas I know they will outgrow.

My Main Street, Oregon, Victorian home is easily recognized for its lack of even a blade of grass and lush plantings from front to back. It is so obvious that when I describe where I live, the response from anyone who has traversed Main Street will be, “Oh, so that’s YOUR house!” Planting the terrace has so confounded the village that the police have been called on me twice to discuss visibility down the street. My friends make jokes that only I would have the law called on me for plant materials that weren’t even illegal.

Perpetuating the Stereotype

I’ve been asked why the gardening obsession and admit that more than once I have flippantly tossed back, “Well, I am a gay man, aren’t I?” Yes, I know—stereotype. Male ornamental gardeners are just a step away from florists after all. But when someone asks you to write about why you garden, the stereotype must be tossed aside and the question taken seriously.

Here is a generality that is based on my experience lecturing and teaching in the horticulture industry and I don’t know if it is backed by any research. I can tell you that in general, I can predict gender percentage in an audience based on gardening topic. Audiences for general gardening involving primarily ornamental plants tend to be highly dominated by women; usually I can count on 75–95%. I believe women do tend to garden more for the beauty, the inspiration, to create living spaces, and to embrace the challenges involved with nurturing and growth. Men take over classes on turf (lawns), chemical control and, of course, equipment. Interestingly, topics involving food, produce, and vegetable and fruit production seem to generate interest from both genders on a more even basis. In my experience, gay men do tend to have a passion for the ornamental, so there has to be something to the stereotype. However, whereas some of the top public gardens and horticulture departments in the country are run by gay men, the venues of ornamental horticulture—and the entire green industry—are both still dominated by heterosexual men.

I am at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, which marks the last segment of the “avid” gardening participants. Gardening as the number one recreational activity in America peaked in 2005 and has been on a rapid decline ever since. Unless we find ways to interest more members of generations X and Y in home gardening, I am part of a disappearing trend in homeowners.

Raised with a Green Thumb

I grew up on a struggling dairy farm in upstate New York. We were not only income limited but it was fairly standard for farm families to grow most of what they would eat. My mom managed a huge vegetable garden that provided fresh, frozen, or canned produce all year. Farm children all have tasks at early ages and as the eldest, around age ten I was delegated to assist her with planting and weeding a garden in excess of an acre. She was always my strongest supporter when she realized I was interested in something. At that time, Gurney Seed Company offered a packet of mixed seeds for kids for one penny with any order. She bought a packet for me and gave me my own “plot” in the garden, and I was hooked. I have since run children’s gardening programs, and it is universal. Ask a child to plant a seed and care for it for you and it is a task; give the child a seed that he or she can own, and they become a nurturer.

Gurney packaged easy-to-grow seeds for the kids’ packet, and mine included one of the easiest: nasturtium. Already a rampant and fast-growing plant, a little potent chicken manure turned them into bushes! Never mind that all that growth came at other flowers’ expense. With my mom and neighbors all praising me for the largest nasturtiums in the neighborhood, I was hooked!

The First Garden Plot

I currently teach horticulture and lecture across the Midwest but, to this day, I remember my first garden plot. Success makes for a positive experience and kindles passion. Had the manure been too potent and killed the seeds or had those seeds not germinated, I could be a much different person today. Certainly my views about gardening could have been altered.

Gardening has a fair number of challenges and landscaping can be costly. Not being armed with the right knowledge can lead to expensive failures. If the novice spends a fair amount on plants and materials without proper instruction and initial education, the resulting failures will discourage them from continuing, much less from developing gardening into a passion.

Ways and Reasons for Gardening

People garden for different reasons and at different levels of intensity. The most basic is to provide enough vegetation around the house and property to call it “landscaped” and add value to the property. But unless all of the maintenance is hired, it is still gardening on the most rudimentary level. Others landscape their properties for food, beauty, relaxation, solace, privacy, entertainment, or plant collections; for the challenge of making plants thrive; to provide wildlife with food; to reestablish native plants; to create exotic looks; as a backdrop for hardscaping (such as patios, ponds, and paths); and for a variety of other reasons.

Gardening constantly evolves as interests, skill levels, and trends change. My interest started with vegetables but went through “chapters” that included a fascination for roses, a declining interest in annuals in favor of perennials, the revelation that woody plants made a more complete landscape, the challenge of learning how to garden in shade, and many other phases.

Many Passions Fulfilled

Over time, I have developed a fascination with plant evolution and the ability of flora to adapt in special ways that continue to amaze me. I do love the challenge of making plants grow and, better yet, flourish. The artistic side of me is sated by putting together beds and combinations that flow with the eye and provide visual interest, inspiration, and stimulation. I actually love to weed and enjoy the quiet time it provides to reflect; I am exhilarated by the appearance of a weed-free, freshly-mulched garden. I love living in a garden and my favorite spot is sitting on my wrapped porch completely surrounded by garden. I’m constantly jonesing over the new, different, and exotic in shape, form, flower, or color much like an addict who can’t get enough high out of what he already has. The ecologist in me wants to replenish and protect plants essential to the quality of our lives on the planet.

The simple act of planting that first seed has over time created a large number of reasons why I garden today. Fortunately, I have developed a career out what has become an obsession and thank goodness my partner, Darrell Hart, has the same passion for classic cars and supports what others might find extreme. What I love most about plants and gardening is the enormous diversity of pleasure they can provide to everybody in one way or another.

I encourage everyone to start with that first seed or plant and nurture it to its ultimate mature state. I don’t expect everyone to develop the same addictive passion that I have, but I am willing to bet that the first bite out of a freshly picked tomato, the scent of angel trumpet wafting in the early summer evening, the excitement of wildlife viewed in your backyard, the freshly cut flowers gracing your table for a dinner party, the smell of rich organic matter after a warm rain—there’s going to be some pleasure and sense of satisfaction in it for you as well.

How I Got Into Gardening …

John Beutel, retired university educator

I have been gardening for as long as I can remember. Helping my mother plant the larger vegetable seeds that could be manipulated by my tiny hands is one of my earliest memories. Seeing the seed sprout, grow, and produce a crop was magical and enchanting to me, even as a child. My mother was the vegetable and flower gardener; my dad grew the potatoes. I learned as I helped them both; I still have my mother’s food preservation book in which the opening statement is, “Now that you have planted your Victory Garden, how are you going to preserve the harvest?”

As a five-year-old, I was enchanted by the beauty of a tiger lily that grew near the front porch, the opulent abundance of spring apple blossoms on an ancient tree in a pasture near the house, and the vast patches of bird’s foot violets on a hill nearby. My interest never waned. By the time I was in high school, the garden became my domain when farm chores were done. I worked side by side with my mother canning, pickling, and freezing the bounty for a family of eight.

In my early years as a teacher, my gardening was confined to some carefully tended houseplants. When I finally purchased my own little home on an acre in the country, I had an empty canvas of a yard. Over my 30 years there, the yard and garden have gone through three major renovations and numerous lesser ones. The current edition began with my retirement and consists of a landscaped water feature and a dozen raised beds that grow an abundance of vegetables and cutting flowers nestled among favorite trees and shrubs. I find the process of tending the garden and preserving the harvest therapeutic, healing, spiritual, and very rewarding.

John Cannon & John Fritsch, retired educators

I have always been interested in plants and gardens. Growing up in northeastern Wisconsin, I used to go into the wooded areas adjacent to my neighborhood and dig up ostrich ferns, white trout lilies, and wood violets to create my first garden beds. I always loved flowers and nurtured many houseplants throughout the years. But, it wasn’t until I had a house with a yard that I could begin to create the garden of my dreams. I took a few botany courses in college; however, I learned most of what I know about plants and gardens just by reading gardening books and visiting other gardens. Over the years, my interest in gardening developed into a passion. That passion is now shared by both John Fritsch and me as we each continue to learn and grow along with our garden.

We moved into our home in 1986 and have been working on the landscape ever since. Our garden has continually evolved over the 25 years we have cultivated our space. The plantings are ornamental, consisting of a few select trees, many evergreen and deciduous shrubs, and herbaceous flowering perennials surrounding a small waterfall and goldfish pond. As our trees have grown, our once-full sun garden has gained many shady areas, providing us an opportunity to explore new plants better-suited to the changing conditions. When choosing plants to grow, we always consider the plant’s hardiness zone and its overall shape, form, texture, and color in context with the other plants. Our goal is to combine and contrast nearby plants to create interesting and long-lasting combinations. Ours is truly a four-season garden with something of interest to enjoy throughout the year.

Bill Hoernke, Web Developer.
Member, Dairyland Cowboys and Cowgirls.

My initial influence for gardening was from my mom. While I was growing up, she had a small vegetable garden that didn’t really amount to much. She did like to harvest the tomatoes and green peppers from it, but what really seemed to inspire me was her love for flowers and perennials. She would enhance an unworthy area next to the driveway with colorful perennials like gaillardia and incorporate other bright annuals like petunias, but I especially remember her gorgeous clematis!

As a young adult, I was inspired by a wonderful friend, Rich Becher, who loved to garden. I rented a room from him in Madison when I was going to college. He had an amazing yard with woody ornamentals, hosta, and other perennials. His hosta were unbelievable. Rich had a wonderful ability to plant something and then move it around the yard until it was in “just the right spot.”

After I bought my own home in Stoughton, I started to experiment with some of the plants that were my favorites in other gardens. I had to have some hosta. It’s named the “friendship” plant because most of them multiply quickly and are easy to share with friends. I started to learn which plants worked best in certain areas of the yard (due to lighting, moisture, and soil), and I continue to learn and watch what other gardeners are doing. I’m active in the Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society and the Wisconsin Hosta Society and now focus on lower maintenance gardening. I love it.

Richard Kilmer, Pharmacist at Community Pharmacy and Member, Dairyland Cowboys and Cowgirls. He spent many years volunteering with GALVAnize, The AIDS Network, OutReach, and others.

I started life on a Wisconsin dairy farm and have always been close to nature. My parents, aunt, and grandparents were avid gardeners, so it’s in my blood. I grew up with my hands in the dirt, growing things. Even as a small child, I was always picking bouquets of flowers as gifts, or spending countless hours in gardens. The beauty of my mother’s flower garden stopped traffic.

I lived in New York City for awhile and spent a lot of my free time at the Clinton Community Garden or the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I came back to Wisconsin for a summer and realized how much I missed nature, and never moved back to New York. Gardening soon became one of my passions. I purchased my aunt’s farm, Rocky Ledge, near Wonewoc, WI. There I have untold acres to cultivate and make more beautiful than I found them. The landscape in the Driftless area of the upper Baraboo Valley is ideal for creating gardens. I describe my gardens as English country meets gay farm boy.

There is a joy I get from seeing things in bloom, giving bouquets of my flowers, hiking my woodland trails lined with wildflowers, seeing bluebirds multiplying over the years from the nest boxes I provide, seeing a hillside in bloom with thousands of daffodils I planted, continuing to grow heirloom flowers my Aunt Evy brought from the family homestead in Minnesota or the special peonies my relatives packed with them when they emigrated from Germany in the 1870s, seeing my mother’s special poppies bloom each spring, and sharing the beauty and bounty of my gardens with friends and family. It brings me peace and joy and helps create a special place where I find great happiness.

Bob Klebba, Morningwood Farm Nursery, Mt. Horeb

My mom got me started in the garden. I remember watching her planting annuals in those first warm days of spring. I was fascinated by the process of buying small plants and watching them grow and bloom through the summer.

I got hooked on gardening in my own vegetable garden in grade school. I planted flowers from seed and vegetables ranging from radishes to tomatoes. My mom, the enabler, got me a subscription to Organic Gardening when I was in junior high school. I learned that soil was the key to success and talked my mom into hauling horse manure on an open trailer that dropped at least half the load on the 10-mile trip home. But efforts like these allowed me to brag about my tomatoes to my paternal grandfather, also a gardener.

As I started high school, I researched how to build a small greenhouse using storm windows. This allowed me to garden year-round in a space with a 5’ by 5’ footprint. I enjoyed this space as my own, cultivating tropical plants and starting seedlings early in the spring. I’m now making a living from growing and selling plants at our nursery west of Madison: Morningwood Farm. My early start got me in touch with the process of gardening and that process now includes my customers’ enjoyment of gardening.

Jane LaFlash, mother of a gay son and founder of the Madison chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)

I was nearly 50 when I bought a house on Madison’s east side and decided I “wanted my yard to look nice.” Before that, I could not have cared less about gardening. I asked a friend to show me the weeds versus the desirable plants in my yard, and my sister took me to the Garden Expo. I joined the Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society so I could go on garden tours, and things snowballed from there.

Now I am a total garden nut and a plantaholic. At the beginning, I became a different gardener each year due to all I had learned during that year by reading, attending lectures, visiting gardens, volunteering at Olbrich Botanic Garden and Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, enrolling in the Master Gardening program, and—of course—by trial and error in my own garden.

At first I would take any free plant anyone would give me, but now I am much more selective and work at one of my main gardening goals: landscaping for the six months of the year that perennials are dormant. Besides the real joy of working in my garden, the excitement of buying new plants, and the thrill of visiting other gardens, I have found satisfaction and strength in knowing that in my 50s and 60s I can become involved in a whole new activity, learn a new topic, and make a new set of friends.

Jaime Zimmerman, Vice President, Senior Investment Consultant, Robert W. Baird & Co.

I grew up in a big family in a little town. We had a large house that sat on about an acre of land, and my dad loved to “work” in the yard. Every Saturday morning we had to help until 1:00. Then, we could spend the rest of the day with our pals. I always saw those Saturday mornings as punishment. There were hundreds of feet of horsefly-infested shrub-borders, and my dad insisted the soil be turned over and the weeds be pulled constantly. It was hard work for a kid: slave labor, in my opinion.

Now that I have my own home, I can’t wait to “work” in the yard. It’s comforting and a form of creative expression. I get lost in my thoughts. There’s the wonderful fresh air, exercise, and an overall feeling of accomplishment. My sister lives on a farm nearby, and I’ve taken to growing vegetables and herbs there. Last spring, we planted a small orchard. There’s satisfaction and romance in taking nourishment directly from the earth.

I see now what drove my father. And without my realizing it, he taught me some very practical things: what a weed looks like and that a hat is a great deterrent to a horsefly. Now, I don’t mind working in my yard well past 1:00.