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The fairy gardener
by Jim Edminster
2013-03-05

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Driving to Kansas for Xmas I got to sample different public radio stations in four states, much to the detriment of my opinion of Chicago's NPR—a station that has taken Terry Gross off in the afternoon and replaced her with some goofus with permanent laryngitis and a format for analyzing local newspaper headlines with C-team celebs.

I bring up this personal distaste only because it allowed me to glean some garden column items. An ancient but incredibly intelligent interviewer in Iowa, Diane Rehm, talked with the author of American Canopy: Trees, Forest & the Making of a Nation: Eric Rutkow. His book relates the relationship of trees to American history from our forests' abundance which probably led to our famous wastefulness to the strange saga of pro-slavery, anti-native-American J. Sterling Morton who established Arbor Day to John Muir, Johnny Appleseed & Paul Bunyan.

A bright young interviewer, also in Iowa, talked with Evelyn Birkby, a newspaper columnist and radio-show host who has been doing a farm, garden and food weekly column for 63 years without any missed deadlines. Miz Birkby is hilarious; in her upper 90s, she has written 10 books, the latest of which is Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living from Iowa's Best-Known Homemaker. In her honor I'm including a recipe I picked up from somewhere that people lined up at my workplace to get to:

Quick trifle

Ingredients: (already made) angel food cake, milk, instant vanilla pudding, Cool Whip, three kinds of fruit (fresh, frozen or canned; if canned, drain).

Rip up the cake in big chunks. Put in a bowl. Put in a layer of fruit. (Possible combos: sliced peaches, strawberries, blueberries or raspberries, cherries and pineapple chunks.) Put in a big glop or four of Cool Whip. More fruit layers & more Cool Whip to top of bowl. Do not mix! Make instant pudding in separate bowl (with milk) and before it sets pour it over first bowl. That's all.

Let us now rant

Some of you may have read or heard of a report that cats eat—OMG!—birds. That many birds are going extinct because of domesticated tabbies and that feral wild cats need to be, it was more than hinted, absolutely wiped out. I like birds just fine. I feed them all winter.

Guess what? Birds eat birds—as my (indoor) cats and I watched out the windows on my upper deck, what to our wondering eyes should appear (five blocks from Wrigley Field in Chicago) but a large red-tailed hawk. He wasn't eating grain at the feeder, either. Further that report glossed over something else it said cats eat: small mammals—moles, voles, mice, rats, rabbits and squirrels. All these critters, I might point out, are anathema to gardeners. Other predators used to eat these "vermin": weasels, martins, lynxes, bobcats, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, wolves, badgers, etc.

Hardly any of these predators live in cities—they've either been hunted out or their habitat destroyed by modern people. This same habitat destruction has also heavily influenced wild birds. Cats are not so responsible; people are. Birds, for thousands of year,s have dealt with other (better, by the way) hunters. Leave the cats alone. Support the trap, neuter and release programs for feral cats if you want. Keep your own feline darlings indoors. Adopt a stray or two. That'll be enough without a cat holocaust.

Some garden books to check out:

—Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard by Amanda Thompson. A book after my own eccentric heart—if you want to put something odd or colorful or individual in your yard Amanda shows you how.

—Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart. Lots of info on, apparently, most of the poison and/or obnoxious plants in the world (e.g. oleander, water hyacinth, ergot, coyotillo, et. al.). Also plants that you thought were awful but are not quite so bad.

—Any Size, Anywhere Edible Gardening: The No Yard, No Time, No Problem Way to Grow Your Own Food by William Moss. Yes, window boxes and tiny containers and probably window ledges and fire escapes too.

A friend was kind enough to slip me a newspaper clipping illustrating a catch-22 situation to which I am very liable. A certain Kathy Cummings, here in Chicago, grew a natural garden—no lawn, and all wild flowers such as milkweed (which feeds monarch butterflies, Illinois' state insect). For this, Cummings got a first-place award and plaque citywide in naturalized gardens. She even had her picture taken with then-Mayor Daley.

This past October the city ticketed Cummings for having weeds taller than 10 inches. Officials insisted her wild flowers were weeds. The only thing I could advise her to do, should she ask, is plant lots of obviously blooming plants or at least have ones with colorful foliage. And she could do as I do—slip lots of big pots of cannas, geraniums, daisies, zinnias and coreopsis around. (And bribe the neighbors not to turn you in.)


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