For the love of gardens and wolves

March 31, 2013

Dr. Allan Armitage is “Going Crazy”

It’s a pleasure to welcome Dr. Allan Armitage back to the show. I know that we chatted sometime in the past five years but I can’t remember exactly when. Not that it matters. The point is that he will be speaking at “Going Garden Crazy,” the 2013 Spring Symposium for the La Porte County Master Gardener Association. Appropriately enough, his talk (at 9:45 a.m.) is called “Crazy Plants for Crazy Gardeners.”

Among his accomplishments, Armitage is Professor Emeritus of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, and is the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor Liberty Hyde Bailey Recipient from the American Horticultural Society. He is the author of 13 books (the latest, as of 2011, is the 2nd edition of Armitage’s Garden Perennials), and he writes a monthly column in Greenhouse Grower.

His latest ventures include an online course which he describes as “The Greatest Perennial Course on Earth !” Of course, he says that tongue in cheek, but it’s obvious that he is proud of Perennials for the Sun. It’s his first Internet course for gardeners and landscapers, and it features 20 genera, with oral presentations, photos, videos and yes, tests on each one.  A section on Nomenclature and Taxonomy is also included.  It is, as he explains, “For those who always wanted to learn more but did not have the opportunity, no more excuses.”

Not only that, but his horticultural app is about to hit the market–that is, as soon as it gets released from Apple prison (the review process). It is called Armitage’s Greatest Perennials & Annuals and here are some of the features:

•  Over 70 genera, over 300 different selections, and over 350 photos
•  Search by Plant Type, Sun, Shade and USDA Climate Zone. Information easily found on heights and flowering times
•  Opinions by Dr. Armitage on why we should be growing certain plants
•  Pithy information in Dr. Armitage’s no nonsense style
•  Works on all tablets and smartphones.
•  For more info, email

Finally, he has more awards and honors than your cable system has channels. However, that doesn’t stop him from having a very down-to-earth approach to gardening:

I bet if I asked 500 gardeners today to describe in a single word why they garden, I would hear the same three words that gardeners used 20 years ago: creativity, excitement, and therapeutic. Wouldn’t you agree? Creativity occurs every time you place a couple of plants in the soil, and playing in that soil is therapeutic, especially when the stress of work, kids, and spouse may drive you to drink. And yes, gardening is exciting. Maybe not NASCAR exciting, but we are a simple lot, and prefer to watch plants succeed than to smell cars going around in circles for 500 miles.

Nonetheless, there are a number of gardeners I have found best to avoid. Heaven help you when you meet someone who wants to correct your plant pronunciation. Truly, does it really matter if you say pan-ic-ew-lay’ ta or pan-ic-ew-lah’ ta? And who really cares if you say clem’ a-tis instead of cle-mat’ is? Simply tell them that Armitage says: “Get the syllables in the right order and fire away!” Such frustrated people have too much time on their hands. They should garden more.

I also run for the hills when plant snobs show up: people who won’t grow annuals, or live only for a certain genus, or those who believe that only native plants should be in gardens. There are places for all these things. Even though I dislike rose gardens, I love roses and simply believe that they are best combined with other plants. Let’s be gardeners, not associations.

Neither do I have patience with people who advise me that my garden is not well designed. Long ago I learned I don’t have the discipline to stay with any plant or any garden design – there are simply too many things to try. My design philosophy finds me with a plant in one hand and a shovel in the other, looking for a place to plant the sucker. Although I am not capable of practicing it, I love good design. Like the famous comment about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I recognize it when I see it,” such are my comments about garden design. And my garden is just fine, thank you.

The Going Garden Crazy 2013 Spring Symposium is Saturday, April 13, 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. CDT at the Heston Hills Conference Center, 1933 East 800 North, LaPorte, Indiana 46350. Just $35 gets you the conference AND lunch. How can you go wrong? Click here to register online.
Or call 219-324-9407.

Jim and Jamie Dutcher work in defense of wolves

We have entered an era of not just misguided but stupid politics and policy. This past week, President Barack Obama signed into law H.R. 933, a continuing resolution spending bill approved by Congress. But the kick in the shins is a provision buried 78 pages within the bill that protects biotech corporations such as the Monsanto Company from litigation. In fact, you’ve probably already heard of the “Monsanto Protection Act,” which opponents have come to call this bill.

Did Obama know that this provision was in the bill? Of course he did. But it has become so difficult in Washington to get any budget bill passed that he really had no choice but to sign it, or risk another round of brinkmanship with the dysfunctional Congress. The repulsive and indefensible clause was sneaked in by legislators bought and sold by industry. The silver lining is that the bill expires in six months, and hundreds of thousands of people have voiced their opposition and are calling on Obama to issue an executive order to call for the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Flash back to almost exactly two years ago, when a very similar thing happened, again because of stupid politics:

On April 14, 2011, the United States Congress made a radical and unprecedented move. For the first time in the 37-year history of the Endangered Species Act, the legislative body removed an animal from that list. That animal was the gray wolf. Until then, delisting was a laborious process, requiring lengthy scientific review and a consensus of government agencies. The wolf now stands as the lone exception. It’s a stretch even to say that Congress voted on the issue; the delisting itself never came up for a vote. Instead the fatal bit of legislation was intentionally buried deep within the federal budget bill: It was attached as an unrelated rider. While furious debate and news coverage focused on the debt ceiling, the wolf quietly lost its federal protection in Idaho and Montana. The new law paved the way for further state-by-state delisting. There was no debate, no consensus, no input from scientists. There was only politics.

That passage is taken from a fabuous and important new book, The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim and Jamie Dutcher, who join me on the program this morning. They just spent some time in Chicago, where their exhibit, Living with Wolves, just opened at The Field Museum. It runs through July 7 of this year. Living with Wolves is also not so coincientally the name of their website.

There you’ll see some of the remarkable photographs taken by Jim (already an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and cinematographer) and Jamie. They lived for six years in a tented camp at the edge of Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness, where they not only introduced and observed the Sawtooth Wolf Pack, but became close enough to it to become trusted by the wolves, which allowed them to observe their most intimate behavior. Their experiences became the source of a series of films that garnered them three Emmys. To get just a taste of the world in which they lived, take a look at this short video.

Their goal is daunting: to dispel centuries of deep distrust that humans have for this most misunderstood of animals, most of it stemming from superstition and fear. It is that ignorance of the true nature of wolves that is behind the slaughter of eleven hundred of them in the U.S. in the two years since they were removed from the Endangered Species list. This is despite studies that show that where they have been allowed to repopulate, wolves are helping to restore balance to ecosystems.

Among the groups concerned with the irrational assault on wolves is Defenders of Wildlife, which even has a Wolf Weekly Wrap-up to detail the advances and setbacks in the cause of these mysterious animals.

Jim and Jamie Dutcher address the human hatred of wolves in their book, where they debunk as many myths as they can, starting with the idea that wolves are dangerous to people:

Reality: Wild wolves are generally afraid of people and avoid them. Along with other large animals like moose, cougars, and bears, wolves can be dangerous to people. However, incidents involving wolves are exceedingly rare. Over the past 100 years in North America, there have been only two cases in which wild wolves reportedly killed a human being. To put this statistic in contrast, also in North America, bears have killed at least 35 people since 2000, and, since 1990, cougars have killed nine. In the United States, domestic dogs kill approximately 30 people every year.

They do the same with the myth that wolves kill many cattle and sheep:

Reality: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than six milllion head of cattle live in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the three states where the vast majority of wolves in the West live. U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports for those states show that in 2011, wolves killed 180 head of cattle, or 1 cow out of every 33,666. In the same three states, 835,000 sheep live. U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports show that in 2011, wolves killed 162 sheep, or 1 in every 5,154. However because these losses are unevenly distributed, they can take a toll on a single producer.

But the most impressive case for wolves is made by the way this duo describes their interactions with the wolves. Jim and Jamie make a case for the notion that wolves aren’t really that different from human beings. They live in families, sometimes nuclear, sometimes extended. They have distinct personalities. They show loyalty, playfulness, fear and courage. They are, in short, worthy travelers on our planet, and it’s about time we gave up our superstitious notions of these creatures and began accepting them as part of a grander plan for nature.