Sunday, May 14, 2000

Father Earth defers to Mother Nature


Gardening expert Denny McKeown hopes to sow common sense with new book

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Denny McKeown may be one of Cincinnati's best known gardeners, but he knows who's boss:

        “Mother Nature. She's there to humble us. Just when you think you've done everything right, she sends in the wind and rain.

[photo] DENNY MCKEOWN
(Enquirer photo)
| ZOOM |
        “I do call her Ma'am.”

        That's evident in The Gardening Book for Ohio (Cool Springs Press; $19.95).

        Mr. McKeown fought writing the book for two years. “I found excuse after excuse not to do it. When I couldn't find any more excuses, I made them up.”

        When even those excuses failed, he plopped down and started writing seven hours a day, seven days a week. Two months later he had 27 scrawled legal pads and a first draft that became a 446-page book.

        Organized by plant, it's full of facts, care, maintenance and how each fares in eight geographic zones based on climate and soil.

        Well, fine. What about today, Mother's Day? When popular wisdom says it's OK to put out plants in our user-unfriendly climate.

        “Generally, yes. But the key isn't the date, as much as soil warmth,” Mr. McKeown says. “The best thing is a warm rain. If the soil's too cold, it shocks roots and plants won't thrive.

        “I tell people this and I know they're thinking, "It's Mother's Day? What do you know'?”

        Plenty.

        Mr. McKeown, 58 and single (“since the '80s; I'm married to my job”), living in Kenwood, father of three grown children, has been digging mother earth since 1960, first at Natorp's, later at his own DM Landscaping.

        “I started at Natorp's as a co-op and found I learned more faster than in school. I worked with people who knew so much, I thought of myself as the messenger — carrying a message from people much wiser.

        “I still feel that way.”

        Lately, his message is a triple-banger:

        • Water: “People kill plants with kindness (overwatering) because they think they need more than they do. God gave us two moisture meters — a right hand and a left. Use one to dig with a trowel, the other to check moisture.”

        • Site: “It's like real estate, where the three main features are location, location, location. In gardening, it's site, site, site — sun, shade, drainage. Know the plant and know the site.”

        • Husbands: “I spell landscape pollution h-u-s-b-a-n-d. Manufacturers spend millions on research; they know it's a waste of time to put instructions on a container because it's the last thing he'll read. He'll double dosages on weed killer. The industry doesn't even recommend fertilizer for new plants because they know it's a 50 percent chance the husband will double the dose and kill or stunt the plant.”

        Hmmmm. Not making many friends here, Dennis, any more bombs to drop?

        The best cure for a brown thumb ...

        Common sense. When in doubt, do what Mother Nature would do. Plants want to grow as much as you want them to. Pick the right site and they'll grow, with or without your thumb.

        What my personal garden needs ...

        High color and low maintenance. I'd much rather hold an iced tea than a hose because I really hate to work in the yard. Except for one impatiens bed, the whole yard is on its own.

        All gardens need ...

        Color, and it's easy to do. I don't just mean blooms, either; they need foliage color to create natural interest.

        No garden needs ...

        Weeds. There are products that easily take care of them. Hands and knees may be rewarding for some, but invariably you break the root and get the weed back.

        The best gardens ...

        Are those that we're involved with. You can have professional help, but still get involved, so it reflects your personality.

        The worst gardens ...

        The ones where you hire somebody and say “do it.”

        The biggest mistake gardeners make ...

        Buying plants like furniture — what strikes your eye with no regard for location. It's why plants die, not your brown thumb.

        What I hear most about the Ohio book ...

        Is the format, how it's so easy to go to a particular plant and read about its limitations and tolerances. At (book) signings I keep hearing how people carry it to garden centers, find a plant and look it up before buying.

        The most important thing a beginner needs to know ...

        Is that it's OK to ask questions. After 40 years, I still do. They also need to think about garden design: Bigger plant beds mean less Frisbee room for the kids.

        If reincarnation is real and I come back as a plant, it will be ...

        A black-eyed Susan. I'm perennial and I'm durable, even if you abuse me. I smile, I sleep all winter and bloom all summer. If I get tired looking, cut off my old blooms and I'll bloom again.

        This is what I learned writing the book ...

        That I only know 30 percent of what I thought I knew.

        My favorite thing ...

        Quiet time. I make sure I have two hours to myself every day. It might be two hours in the car, but they're mine — to reflect and chastise myself and figure out how to do life better.

       



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