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In the world of gardening, what you don’t kill — and doesn’t kill you — will bloom – Chicago Tribune

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Tomato plants in.

Flower beds redefined.

Debris removed from hostas, lilies and coneflowers.

Check. Check. Check.

Tilling, pulling, digging, hauling.

Gardening is work that never ends.

And that’s exactly why I love it.

I am a worker. I was raised to be busy. Growing up in a household of eight, if you weren’t doing something, well, you were lazy. Even though it’s been decades since the to-do list exceeded hours in the day, I still struggle with downtime.

Coneflowers, seen here in columnist Donna Vickroy's garden, are not only native to Illinois and easy to grow but attract all sorts of pollinators. (Donna Vickroy/Naperville Sun)
Coneflowers, seen here in columnist Donna Vickroy’s garden, are not only easy to grow and native to Illinois but they attract all sorts of pollinators. (Donna Vickroy/Naperville Sun)

Life demands enough thankless work, chores that go uncelebrated but still need to be done. But there also is the work that reaps rewards. The snipping of dead blooms, the thinning of robust lily beds, the trimming of lilacs and spirea. If things go well, all of it will result in loveliness. Temporary loveliness, of course, but loveliness all the same.

Peonies popping with brilliant color, tomatoes bursting with flavor, wisteria cascading with purple hues.

Even when you fail and your clematis burns up in the sun, you gain knowledge and, thus, the opportunity to start again — in the shade.

In 2020, when I decided to retire from full-time writing and people asked, “What will you do now?” I didn’t want to tell them, “Now that I’m grown up, I want to be a gardener.”

But then COVID-19 hit and my dad took a turn and suddenly there was endless work and endless obstacles to getting that work done.

Even though I didn’t need more to do at the age of 60, I opened the door on gardening, mainly because life was suddenly so stressful and I needed something that brought peace.

I’d always been intrigued by gardening and would have dug into it sooner but there were kids to be raised and a career that demanded so much of my time.

Back then, domestic duties were given minimal attention. Neglect is a nice euphemism.

Foolishly, I thought, once I retired and had some time, I would instantly become a gardener. Ha.

Donna Vickroy grew a bumper crop of cherry tomatoes in her garden last summer. (Donna Vickroy/Naperville Sun)
Donna Vickroy grew a bumper crop of cherry tomatoes in her garden last summer. (Donna Vickroy/Naperville Sun)

Gardening takes planning, thoughtfulness, research. It takes strength, patience and humility. And it takes years of practice.

It has literally taken me years to learn the identities of plants, let alone their properties. Thank goodness for that iPhone plant identifier.

Countless times I have Googled, “Why won’t my peonies bloom?” “Where should I plant daisies?” “Should I deadhead black-eyed Susans?”

I only recently learned about the importance of removing suckers from tomato plants and how to harvest basil properly.

The journey has been a humbling one, fraught with failure, wasted funds and countless blisters, sunburns and thorn-like injuries.

I now understand that I likely won’t live long enough to be really good at this. But that’s OK. I like that the endeavor is bigger than me. I like that the discipline requires ongoing investigation, not to mention trial and error.

Mostly, I like that the endeavor is worthwhile. Not only does it reap a harvest of color, it enables me to give the earth something it appreciates. Years ago, while helping tend to my dad’s backyard veggie plot, he told me, “If you want the earth to work for you, you have to work for it.”

In exploring the world of local fauna, I have discovered much about myself: How much I don’t mind dirt or worms or the occasional tortoise that crosses the border from the nearby wetlands; how much I like to collapse into the bed at night because I worked so hard all day; and, how much of a social media show-off I can be — did you catch the photo of my peonies?

I was nervous that the supersonic cicada emergence would be more than I could handle, but so far I haven’t spied a single one in my yard. When we walk the dog, they’re all over the sidewalks of other neighborhoods but it seems ours has been spared.

Bee balm flowers not only bring color and aroma to your garden, they live up to their name. (Donna Vickroy/Naperville Sun)
Bee balm flowers not only bring color and aroma to your garden, they live up to their name. (Donna Vickroy/Naperville Sun)

And so my work continues. Hauling hoses, pulling buckthorn and sticker weeds, and trying desperately to keep the coleus happy. It is a never-ending job but it also is a labor of love.

I love when the wild geranium loses control and has to be cut back. I love when the bee balm lives up to its name. I love when the cherry tomato harvest is so robust that I have to stand and eat them off the stalks to maintain order.

And I love the creativity gardening affords. I put together a fairy garden for my grandchildren. I relegated a portion of my new perennial garden to milkweed. And, last year, I scattered wildflower seeds across the railroad garden, which backs up to a heavily traversed walkway. By mid-July, the trains were circling a small meadow.

I love when the honeysuckle vines leap, their blooms becoming a siren for hummingbirds. And I especially love when finches, butterflies and bees come to feast and join the show.

I will never be an expert. My home will never make the garden club circuit. And there will always be something that’s failing, struggling or completely out of place.

But they are my gardens. And I am proud to be at their service.

Donna Vickroy is an award-winning reporter, editor and columnist who worked for the Daily Southtown for 38 years. She can be reached at [email protected].



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