By Peter H. Green
An Urban Planter?
I hail from a family of nature lovers – urban naturalists, to be sure – city folk nonetheless rooted in the soil. Combined, their talents exemplified the consummate urban planter.
My father, who grew up disadvantaged in a forest of brick and concrete on the South Side of Chicago, still had his own opportunities to cultivate his interest, so to speak. Having no similarly inclined friends, he joined the Lone Scouts and freed himself to pursue any merit badge he fancied, notably urban horticulture.
I first became aware of his passion as a toddler, when he showed me how the morning glories along the east-facing fence of the backyard bloomed as we ate breakfast, and sure enough, the four-o-clocks on the opposite fence came into their glory every afternoon. When I was about seven he decided to get me involved. He set up a small table in front of a tall dining room window, which admitted plenty of afternoon sunlight. He filled a few flowerpots with loamy dirt from the backyard and handed me a seed packet of beans, which he helped me plant. I followed his instructions to the letter, nurtured the bean seedlings and watched the dual-leaved sprouts duplicate so quickly on the vine that every week we had to plant a longer stick in each pot for them to climb so they wouldn’t trail across the dining room floor.
The African violet craze
As the 1940s passed into the 50s, he bought into the latest craze: African violets. This time he selected a corner of the laundry room in the basement for germinating a dozen plants he had sent for by mail. He nurtured them all winter, hopeful they might someday bloom. At last one day he proudly pointed to a single, tiny deep blue flower on one of his specimens. Eventually a smattering of miniature blooms appeared on a few others. I wondered if splashing soap suds had diminished his yield. What a lot of fuss, I thought, for such little reward.
Mom, taking a more laid-back approach, pooh-poohed his efforts. Why not just wait until warm weather, when you could plant showy primrose, daisies, snapdragons with a border of red salvia in spring and then later, zinnias, marigolds and asters? Whenever she needed a bouquet of violets for the dinner table, she would send me to a dark corner of the yard beneath an enormous mock-orange hedge along the back fence to pick some, where they grew in a riot of purple profusion. This required no work at all. Why, I wondered, did violets insist upon being left alone, hidden from view, to grow without any help outdoors, while these prima donna exotics struggled in our own subterranean spaces? Mom quickly pointed out that plants grow best in their native habitat.
His greatest triumph
This theory was amply proven by Dad’s greatest triumph, which came years later. In their empty-nester Chicago apartment he set a dozen cactus plants in tiny pots along a window ledge behind the kitchen sink, where they snatched a couple of hours of morning sun through a crack between high-rise buildings. In this perch they grew from the starter plants he bought to a height of three or four inches. When my parents retired to the dream house they built in a Florida subdivision, he planted his potted cacti along the back of their one-story home in the full tropical sun. Within a few years of those nearly continuous growing seasons they reached the full height of the wall, until they began to lift off the sheltering roof eaves. He had easily earned another merit badge as an urban planter.
At last my mother put her foot down. “Urban planter, my thumb!” she declared, and hired a man to uproot these offending monstrosities from the yard. She was quite content with a key lime tree my wife and I gave her one year, and used its fruits, produced without additional care, for the rest of her days to flavor her nightly gin and tonics.
Till next time, good words to you,
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