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Archive for Sunday, September 13, 1998

ON THE LEVEL

September 13, 1998

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A garden can be an enjoyable pastime, a scientific endeavor or both.

On the surface, gardens just seem to be a collection of flowers with a sprinkling of a few trees. At this level, gardens are simply enjoyed for their beauty, without much thought for anything else.

On a somewhat deeper level, gardeners thoughtfully consider the contours of the land and the shape of the flower beds before carefully making decisions about combining all those flowers and trees. In the end, these gardeners understand that the beauty of their garden is the result of hard work and planning.

Taken at its deepest level, gardening is a challenge that involves searching for unusual plants, studying the amount of sun and shade in different areas of the garden and changing the location of plants depending on the garden's microclimates. At this point the gardener comes to a full appreciation that the beauty of a garden lies in successfully meeting the challenges.

Jack Landgrebe gardens at the deepest level. He grows unusual plants such as blue cardinal flower and variegated Solomon's seal. He has monitored the sun's light across his garden and used the information to place plants in the microclimate most conducive to their survival. Perhaps his education as an organic chemist has given him the tools to meticulously approach his gardening endeavors, much as he applies the scientific method to experiments as a professor at Kansas University.

He explained his procedure to me. ``I actually got a pad and paper. I would come out here on the weekends about every two hours and make a map of where the sun was.'' With the sun's light plotted against his garden space, he was ready to plant. ``The problem is that as the season goes on, (the location of the sun's light) changes,'' he added. ``Nevertheless, it was a good starting point and I would recommend that. It's a systematic way of knowing what kind of plants you're going to need.''

Armed with that information was only part of the battle in creating a beautiful garden. Landgrebe noticed microclimates all over the yard. Microclimates create pockets where temperatures, wind, moisture and other factors combine with the sun and shade to affect a plant's vigor. ``Sometimes, I found out the hard way,'' he admitted. ``I could plant something in one place and if I planted it 3 feet away, it wouldn't grow. It would die off because there wasn't enough sun in that location or the maybe the drainage was poor or something. It became a real challenge.''

Micromanagement

During my visit to Landgrebe's garden spot on Highland Drive, I came to realize that he has correctly matched up plants with the correct microclimates. The entire garden is magnificent. A mass of wild ginger clusters under a large maple tree at the right side of the driveway. ``It is very difficult to get anything to grow under a maple tree where the roots are so close to the surface. It's really tough,'' he said. ``Those ginger plants just grow great.''

Across the width of the modest house, the front garden is alive with impatiens, astilbe and coral bells. Then, where the garden gradually becomes sunnier as it rounds the corner to the south side, gayfeather, phlox, coreopsis and lobelia bloom.

We passed to the narrow side garden by walking under a small white pergola that Landgrebe built. ``I try to do as much as I possibly can myself,'' he told me. ``I put in this pergola a little over a year ago.'' On one side a clematis vine makes its way up the sturdy post while a lush akebia vine climbs the opposite pillar. ``It is supposed to bloom in the spring,'' Landgrebe said of the akebia. ``But this very first spring after transplanting, it did not bloom. My guess is it will be OK next year. Sometimes you have to be patient.''

Brights in the forest

I myself was getting impatient to see the back garden that his wife, Carolyn, had described to me on the phone a few days earlier as ``his pride and joy.'' Landgrebe and I passed through a white gate with a large wooden sunflower mounted on it. I followed him for about 15 feet before the vista of the back garden came into full view. I took a few moments to let the view sink in before we began the official tour. A visit to this garden cannot be hurried.

Curved walkways made of smooth stones meander around hundreds of shade loving plants, a bog garden and end at a small pond. The flower beds are bordered by rocks. Benches and garden chairs nearby invite short rests. Flowers growing in several containers throughout the garden bring splashes of color in the cool shade. An arch and a small curved bridge add unique interest to the garden.

``This (bridge) is not just esthetic,'' Landgrebe explained. ``It is practical because the roots of this tree made it impossible to maintain the walkway that I had there originally. I finally decided that this was the answer -- a bridge over the root.''

The little red wagon

The back garden looks completely different now than it did years ago. Originally it was ``all sun, all lawn and swing sets for the kids,'' Landgrebe said. ``In those days I had a vegetable garden.'' But as the years passed both the kids and the trees got bigger. Then Landgrebe changed the look of the garden.

``I simply started putting in walkways and landscaping materials and the lawn got smaller and smaller and smaller,'' he said. ``Finally, a few years ago I really got bit by the idea of a getting in a pond back there. But I realized there were a lot of limitations. Because a lot of the plants you put in ponds need a lot of sun, at least four hours a day. I knew I was skirting on the edge of not having enough.''

Undaunted, he dug the 9- by 7-foot pond and hauled all the rocks. ``I like the idea of doing everything myself,'' he stated. ``All 3,000 pounds of stones were carried by a little red wagon into the back yard. I figured I picked each one of those stones up about six times before it ended up in its final location.'' He then added, ``I don't even own a wheelbarrow. My favorite gardening tool is that little red wagon.''

The pond has an assortment of water plants including the large marbled leaves of Imperial taro, variegated iris and unusually large water hyacinths. Typically, water hyacinths are smaller in size, prefer sun and bloom early in the season. ``But mine grow tall,'' he said. ``And it takes a long time before they bloom,'' attributing the delay to them being ``sun-challenged.''

The two of us walked along the meticulously laid stone that formed winding paths throughout the garden. ``I didn't do all these stepping stones at once,'' Landgrebe noted. ``They went in over a period of years.''

Soon we came upon a small fence made of landscaping timbers turned upright. Ivy climbing up its side partly camouflaged the structure. Behind the fence Landgrebe hides what he calls miscellaneous junk. ``I keep all my pots and piles of soil and peat moss and whatever else back there,'' he said. ``It's a good place to put it.''

We walked along garden beds filled with true shade lovers -- bleeding heart, hostas, columbines, coral bells, liriope, toad lily and pulmonaria. ``I especially like the fact that they (pulmonaria) come out in one color and change into another,'' he declared. ``It's really amazing.'' Variegated dogwood bushes and impatiens brighten the center garden space.

Tackling challenges

Though he and Carolyn have lived on Highland Drive for 35 years, Landgrebe seriously took up gardening only three years ago. ``It was something that just hit me as being a challenge, would get me outdoors and it was a lot of fun,'' he said. ``I found it was very rewarding when things went right even though it was a little discouraging when things didn't go right.''

He's not afraid to tackle difficult plants. A clump of bugbane growing at the rear of the garden is always a race against the calendar. ``It's a challenge because it doesn't always bloom before the frost,'' he said. The dainty flowers of hardy cyclamen are visible in another part of the garden. ``They're really hard to grow,'' he said. ``The bulbs come from Turkey. They're flat ugly looking things and apparently very sensitive to heat, cold, moisture, drainage and everything else. I have tried them several times without luck. All of a sudden I had a few that started to bloom.''

As we ended our tour, Landgrebe acknowledged ``I gained a great appreciation for how difficult it is to really maintain a decent garden.'' Oh yes. And at a certain level gardeners can appreciate the beauty of his tireless effort.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at gardenspot@ljworld.com.

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