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E-Garden Almanac: Planting Passion: Part II

E-Garden Almanac

The E-Garden Almanac is the push-button, real human journal of Kelly D. Norris. All errors, grammatic grievances, and opinions are that of the author. Kelly is a freelance writer and Master Gardener from southwest Iowa. His passion and obsession with horticulture, plants, and gardening embodies nearly every function of his life. The E-Garden Almanac serves as the web extension of his columns, articles, and lectures.
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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Planting Passion: Part II

This week's travels began on Wednesday, June 18. I was accompanied by mom and grandma on an escapade to northeast Iowa to interview volunteers at the Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens and Dr. Eugene Coffman of Ridge Road Nursery. I've come to not expect things in life and fortunately, this trip exceeded any that I might have had.

We spent Wednesday night with iris friends Tom and Rita Gormley in Dubuque. Fellowship well into the early morning hours of Thursday caused me to reflect again on why I was pursuing this project. This book is about the interactions gardeners have that preserve the strands of our own humanity, the bonds that unite us as people of a similar cause. In our information hungry age, it is all too easy to become disconnected from the civility of human relationships.

Thursday morning began at the arboretum. I was frisked away on a golf cart by Jack Frick, President of the Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens and toured the complex interviewing I think every volunteer on site that morning. What a delightful bunch of people all with an unselfish dedication to bettering the public garden sited at Dubuque's Marshall Park. I am indebted to all who took a few minutes out of their busy day to speak with me about their convictions and passions. It was moving to know that this public garden, the only solely volunteer operated public garden in the country, is stewarded by such a knowledgeable and compassionate stead of garden shepherds. Visit them here.

Jack's tour of volunteers did not end with those in the garden though. He insisted that I speak with Jim Schwarz, hosta guru and co-founder of the arboretum. A phone call later I was on my way to Jim's residence, a hosta haven located just a mile from the arboretum, realizing that a story this good needed a chapter of its own. Arriving at Jim's home on Robin Hood Drive it was readily apparent that a plantsman lived there. Hostas burgeoned from the side yard only to reveal three acres of more hostas! Shade nets covered propagation beds of 2,700 cultivars, almost 70% of all those available! And I thought I had logistical issues with 1,500 cultivars of irises. Jim's been breeding too and has developed an entire line based on the Robin Hood Drive his home is located on. Mom, grandma, and I enjoy hostas but are by no means collectors. Yet after a visit to this place anyone would be moved to get "just a few more". We made lists. 'Praying Hands' (which Jim so kindly gave to us) and 'Gunther's Prize' were two favorites.

After leaving Jim's we had dinner with some family at Denny's Lux Cafe, a local hole in the wall that serves a tasty turkey club. After winding through downtown Dubuque and out to Highway 20, we piloted the van towards Ridge Road Nursery, just south of the city center and beyond the Luxemborg village of St. Catherine. Right off a paved road, Ridge Road Nursery is located at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Eugene Coffman, founders of the nursery now operated daily by Chris Frommelt. What fine people! "Doc" and Chris cordially welcomed us to their operation, showed us around, and treated us like aristocrats. Our conversation began on the sun porch high in the trees. I felt like someone visiting Swiss family Robinson's tree shack on a desolate island. The view was superb, stealing a vignette of the Mississippi and surrounding trees in the distance. After covering the basic history, two plantsmen delved into "plant speak", an aspect of the conversation that was probably not all that interesting to mom and grandma. My introduction to "Doc" Coffman was through his Viburnum sieboldii 'Wavecrest', an excellent and highly distinctive selection unfortunately lacking in the trade. He was kind enough to ensure that I had one to take home at the end of our trip. Other plants we exchanged words of intrigue, notes of elation, and bits of knowledge about included Magnolia sieboldii 'Colossus' (pictured) and his dwarf selection of Gymnocladus dioicus, the Kentucky coffeetree (it's like 2' tall, no kidding).

I left saying "this is why I do this" feeling affirmation in my work, in the people I'd interviewed, and in the generosity of the gardening spirit once again. Memories of these personally special moments will live on in plants like hosta 'Praying Hands' and viburnum 'Wavecrest', plants I'll pass every day and gardeners I'll know everyday thanks to their passionate commitment to spreading the goodliness of growing green things.


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