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The Changing of the Garden

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It's an amazing little miracle every year. All winter, riding by on the 151 Sheridan bus, we hardly even notice those patches of dull, cloddy earth stretching like permanent shadows just south of the conservatory on Fullerton. Then, one day toward the end of May or in early June, we look up and think, "Hey, wait a minute! Where'd that come from?" Because suddenly we're looking at the vast and stately Lincoln Park Main Garden: eight formal beds dotted with row after row of little seedlings that will grow into tall plants that- will burst into huge colorful blooms to dazzle and delight the whole summer long.

This year the transformation begins early on the morning of Wednesday, May 27, two days after Memorial Day. This time around, we're watching more closely, and what a sight it is. Out on the garden lawn, the conservatory crew is suggestive of a scene from an Amerika-type television miniseries: a bunch of Chicago guys from the neighborhoods -- and a couple of gals, too -- are roughly rounded up one day from their recliners and corner taverns and are pressed into hard labor as urban migrant farm workers. Some of them are big, with thick, tattooed arms and protruding bellies that round out the fronts of their T-shirts. Some are littler, with lanky legs that jut from loose-fitting shorts and are encapsulated again by striped crew socks and muddy brown boots with leather tongues hanging half out. Some are nondescript in the field of hunching, sweating forms. In the background, leafy trees and the distant John Hancock Building reach toward a picturesque blue sky, cotton ball clouds floating by. Someone lets loose with a four-letter expletive. The word is carried across the shimmering lawn on a soft breeze.

They work through the day with varying degrees of resignation and enthusiasm. One guy rolls back and forth across the beds on a Rototiller. (The compact soil was tilled the first time a few weeks back, after a winter of cold weather and trampling feet.) This time around, the tiller churns in fertilizer and weed killer.

Stepping lightly in the twice-tilled earth of another bed, a tall young man and a short, heavyset woman draw lines and mark holes for the several different plant varieties and sizes to be put in according to this year's layout. Their worn wooden tools are a rakelike marker and a caliper that resembles a Goliath-size compass, both of which may very well have been in the conservatory's possession since its construction nearly a century ago.

Members of another crew sputter about the lawn in motorized green-and-white carts hauling rectangular plastic flats of seedlings by the hundreds out from the yards in back of the conservatory.

The largest crew spreads itself throughout a marked bed to do the actual planting. Some of the planters are deliberate in their task, cradling their seedling trays in their strong arms like awkward dads with a firstborn. They lean carefully forward toward the fresh earth to gently place each tenderleafed new shoot just so, its roots still clinging to a cube-shaped chunk of earth from its little slot in the tray. Others seem a lot more casual, even lackadaisical. Among these, a dark-bearded, bare-chested muscleman crookedly balances his tray on his hip and tosses down seedlings with the loose wrist action of a man dealing cards. A shiny medallion swings from a gold chain around his neck and catches a glint of sun as he digs holes and quickly thrusts the seedlings into them.

"Well, that's not the way you're supposed to do it," Rich Mikowski tells us. "But those are marigolds he's got, pretty hardy with a good root system. Others, you throw 'em like that and they just splatter."

Mikowski, a friendly, everybody's-favorite-uncle kind of guy with a hint of "dem and dose" in his speech, is supervising the planting. In a powder blue knit shirt and blue jeans with a big white handkerchief flapping from the back pocket, he has the fit body of a man who has always labored for a living and knows when to stop with a six-pack. His brow is shaded with a white cotton fisherman's hat. He used to really like the sun, he says, but not so much anymore. He came to work at the conservatory the summer of 1959 and never left. Instead, he ended up with 28 years of on-the-job training and, eventually, the job of conservatory horticulturist.

For the past three years Mikowski has personally designed this garden, which stretches nearly a block long and is packed with almost 25,000 flowers and plants. He is also the man in charge of making sure the conservatory has enough bedding plants on hand for this and the more than 30 other north-side gardens it serves, among them Lincoln Park's Grandmother's Garden, between Fullerton and Webster across the street from the conservatory. Not a formal garden but "like something your grandmother would have," the garden is a jumble of 25,000 perennials that bloom without assistance year after year. Somewhere between 8,000-10,000 annuals will be added between them.

The conservatory will put out about 90,000 bedding plants this year. None were planted before May 15, the Park District's frost cutoff date.

"See, it's fine if you go out and buy ten plants and plant them and you get a frosty night and they die," Mikowski says. "But you go out and plant 20 to 30 thousand plants and they freeze up, you're in big trouble. We got nothing to replace 'em with. That's why we try to be on the safe side."

All the annual bedding plants are grown in the conservatory from seeds (or, on occasion, from cuttings). This year, they grew 105 different varieties. We wonder how many seeds that might have come to. It is impossible to figure, Mikowski says, since seeds come in every size. Petunias, for instance, have one of the smallest seeds. An order for, say, 1/256th of an ounce of these might come to 5,000 seeds. An ounce could be anywhere from 200 to 300 thousand seeds, running $400-500 an ounce. Other seeds are larger, the calculations different. Suffice it to say, Mikowski explains, that "when we order seeds, we order . . . quite a few seeds."

A couple of weeks before the main garden planting, Mikowski had shown us around the conservatory's "promulgating section," an area in back consisting of some 18 greenhouses and about 20 rows of frame houses where the annuals are raised. There is activity here year-round, as flowers for all the conservatory's special shows are cultivated: chrysanthemums for November, poinsettias for Christmas, azaleas for February, lilies and other springtime flowers for Easter. The summer gardens are their biggest project. Plans are drawn up by September 1, eight months in advance, and seeds ordered shortly thereafter. The seeds are planted as early as January.

"Seedlings are started in flats like this, in a special mix of soil we call the sunshine mix. Lots of peat moss," Mikowski says.

We have followed him into one of the greenhouses, passing first through a very large shed busy with the comings and goings of the conservatory's 40 or so employees mixing soil, moving soil in wheelbarrows, bringing Easter lilies out from the conservatory and putting new plants in, potting and repotting. The old greenhouse is very quiet, light but not glaring-bright thanks to a thin wash of white paint on the glass. The temperature is held steady by means of an old-fashioned combination of heating by steam and cooling by open windows. The concrete floor, the wooden tables laid out with broad trays of tiny seedlings growing every which way, and the glass walls are all coated with the faintest dew.

"After the seeds germinate and get to be about this size -- a half-inch to an inch tall -- they're ready for the next step," Mikowski says. "How well they germinate, well, a lot depends on the varieties. Marigold seeds, for example, they germinate very well, 90 to 95 percent germination. Some, we're lucky if we can get 50 percent.

"The next step is called "pricking off," he continues.

We're back in the shed now. Two men and a woman sit at a beat-up wooden bench in a dim corner dexterously pulling frail seedlings, with their two or three tiny leaves and wispy roots, from a germination flat and transferring them to individual cells in a black plastic tray. Their fine finger movements are accompanied by raucous 1950s girl-group rock 'n' roll blaring from a portable radio nearby.

"Then they're set out in our frame yard," Mikowski says.

We follow him outside again, this time toward rows and rows of long cement pits, called frame houses, set slightly below ground level. Heating pipes run along their walls, and they are topped by glass windows. We peek through the windows to see the smaller plants in trays, the larger ones in clay pots. They are all noticeably taller than the pricked-off seedlings. The leaves are bigger and hardier. Some of them are already in bloom. Like a kid showing off his butterfly collection, Mikowski proudly tells us the names of several of the plant varieties.

"Those are called canna, those are tubers, the only ones we dig out of the garden at the end of the season. If you lived down in the south, you could grow them year-round, but in this part of the country they would freeze out.

"These are cleome, sometimes called the spider flower. They grow anywhere from three to five feet in height. They're different colors. We have white, we have pink. These are Celosia Forest Fire and Golden Triumph. And petunias. Red, yellow, pink.

"Here's amaranthus. They get to be about four foot high, and their tops will be bright red. You can see 'em two blocks away. These are put in our Grandmother's Garden.

"Here's coleus, not a flowering plant. These are grown just for the color of the foliage and used mostly as a border plant. There's a newer variety we're trying out this year, and it looks like it's gonna be a real nice color. We're always trying to look for something different."

He leads us back inside through an old-fashioned creaky screen door to the conservatory office. Glowing with a fluorescence that contrasts sharply with the natural light outside, the tight space holds file cabinets, several desks, a six-foot-tall stereo component system that broadcasts the staff's choice of radio music throughout the conservatory, and one plant: a dried-out bowl of cacti looking neglected on a dusty windowsill. The front edge of Mikowski's desk is cluttered with a box of trowels, a tall plastic container of insecticide, and a row of books with titles like The Encyclopedia of the Plant Kingdom, The Hillier Color Dictionary of Trees and Shrubs, Alpines for Your Garden, and -- handiest among them, he says -- The Ortho Problem Solver and Diseases & Pests of Ornamental Plants.

From a file in a desk drawer, he produces the list of the 105 varieties of annuals being grown for the gardens this year. Their names read like a heavenly color chart: Ageratum Blue Blazer. Alyssum New Carpet of Snow. Canna Black Knight and Crimson King. Celosia Plumosa Apricot Brandy. Cherry Glow and Show Girl Geraniums. Marigolds in Lemon Drop, Honeymoon, Yellow Boy, Queen. Sophia, and Harvest Moon. Petunias in Bluefrost; Blue Cloud; Cherry Frost; Pink, Red, and White Cloud; Sky Magic; Summer Sun; White and Red Cascade; Velvet Frost. Peter Pan Cream Zinnia. Tithonia Torch.

Mikowski figures that the process of designing the garden would take him two days if nothing else ever came up; so far, it has always taken him about a week. The layout is a simple 8 1/2 by 11 photocopy of the outlines and dimensions of four of the eight beds, a once-a-year, fill-in-the blanks form. He has printed in the names and colors of his plant selections for one pair of beds; this pattern is to be carried out in its mirror image in the second matching pair and also in the two pairs not shown on the page. He has color-coded everything with a light tracing of colored pencils yellow for Yellow Boy Marigolds, blue for the border of Blue Ageratum, and so on.

The entire planting takes two or three days. As soon as a bed is finished, a big woman in rubber hip-length boots pulls over a snakelike black hose with a long metal snout that creates a tiny convex stream of water. The leaves of the transplanted seedlings dance in the trickle while the lumpy earth around them shifts and settles. Toward late afternoon on the day of our visit, a couple of pale-skinned crew members showing signs of sunburn suck on red popsicles. The woman with the hose playfully sprinkles her coworkers.

Daily maintenance of the garden will go on throughout the summer. The plants are watered and fertilized, weeded, and even replaced where they have been carelessly stepped on or otherwise abused.

"It'll be another month or so before you start seeing a lot of color," Mikowski says. "You gotta see it in September -- big color then. Sure, I'm proud of it. Yes, it is pretty amazing."

Tourists come by the bus load all summer long, he says. "They go into the conservatory and then race right out front again. Parents and children pack the lawns on weekends snapping family photos. Visitors, he says, send glowing letters and postcards from all over the world. Others just call, thanking him for the flowers they see from the 151 bus.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

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