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Archive for Thursday, July 5, 2007

Work in progress

Gardening newcomer growing through trial and error

Robert Rauktis, 1616 Ind., salvaged some windows from his house and placed them in his garage, providing a ground-level and picturesque view of his backyard garden. Rauktis hadn't gardened at all until he moved to Lawrence from California six years ago.

Robert Rauktis, 1616 Ind., salvaged some windows from his house and placed them in his garage, providing a ground-level and picturesque view of his backyard garden. Rauktis hadn't gardened at all until he moved to Lawrence from California six years ago.

July 5, 2007

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Robert Rauktis' Garden

See an audio slideshow about Robert Rauktis' garden. Enlarge video

Robert Rauktis figures gardening is programmed into his DNA.

"I think ... that green creation is part of the survival of the species," he says.

Rauktis says this despite coming to the hobby later in life. The retired neuroradiologist moved six years ago from California to Lawrence, where he purchased a home near the Kansas University campus with loads of landscaping potential.

He'd never gardened before.

Still, he dove right in, laying a brick patio and path, trimming overgrown trees and using the wood to heat his home, gathering rocks to edge flower beds, adorning the space with painted gourds and shellacked logs and planting.

"I hope you find things interesting," Rauktis says while leading me on a tour through his garden. "My neighbors think I'm Amish because I use a push mower. The method to the madness is no chemicals. The trade off is the garden just doesn't look as polished - it doesn't look like a machine aided in another cookie-cutter yard."

During the summer, Rauktis toils about 12 hours a week in his garden. He has nearly completed a degree in teaching English as a second language from KU, and he speaks Spanish, German and French. His bookshelves are lined with Fodor's Travel Guides from all the places he has visited.

Rauktis talks with his hands and moves from subject to subject quickly. While explaining one project he's been working on in the garden, he'll suddenly switch to another idea and mention that he likes to multitask.

The amateur gardener admits that he's learning through trial and error.

"I purchased a bunch of bird and butterfly habitat seed packages and sprinkled them here and there," he says. "They have gotten too dense, and some are definitely weeds. But this is how children learn. Can I do this? Can I do that? Plus, it is fun to try and manipulate nature."

Rauktis goes into the garden without a plan or a certain look in mind, and the landscape evolves naturally.

"(It's) like a painting that changes with every season," he says. "For instance, last year I planted petunias. This year I tried sunflowers, and I am definitely going back to petunias for next season."

Rauktis has developed an appreciation for how things grow and the work involved in creating something from nothing. That's refreshing, particularly because he's determined to keep ahead of nature without using pesticides and other chemicals.

That's not an easy task when you've planted three apple trees at the back of your lot. But he has a great sense of humor.

"You learn as you go," he says. "You'll see that when you are digging post holes for a fence, and in the beginning things are a little crooked. But by the fourth post, things start to straighten out.

"Or when I got antsy and purchased a bunch of stuff over the Internet and learned that 80 percent of it never grew. I know now to stick to the local farmers market or the nurseries. But the point is I want to see if I can do it, God willing, if I can grow my own food. I think anyone who is under the false impression that farming is easy is crazy."

Rauktis has planted loads of Pawnee big bluestem in homage to the gorgeous Flint Hills. He believes the native grasses put on a seasonal show that rivals any display of fall foliage in Eastern states.

Like most gardeners, Rauktis loves to hear adulation from others.

"It is like having your kids in a play," he says. "You want people to see your yard and stand up and cheer as you beam and think, 'Yep, that's MY garden.'"

- Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.

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