grow, marvel, eat, laugh, persevere

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Xan's Darwinian Chicago Garden

Name: Xan Nelson
Location: Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood
Size: 1800 sq feet
Age: 22 years
Bio: I’m an artist, a gardener, and a crazy old lady (not that old, but pretty crazy) with pink hair. I also teach figure skating and my day job is in fundraising for the arts. Lately I’ve been volunteering for the Peterson Garden Project in Chicago.  I started gardening a couple of years after we bought our house because I had this big bare backyard (the prior owners just had grass) and I thought, well flowers would be pretty. 20 or so years later it consumes me. I’m now very active in online gardening communities like MyFolia, Garden Bloggers, Twitter gardenchat. If someone can figure out how to make this my job, I’m listening.
Garden Survey:
Type: Overflowing. I have about 700 square feet of shrubs and perennials and 500 square feet of edibles/herbs in a Chicago backyard (30x60 feet). The lawn is down to paths between the beds. It’s full sun, as I have only one small wild apple tree and my neighbors’ trees don’t really shade me, which is great.
Style: I refer to myself as a “Darwinian” gardener—it’s strictly survival of the fittest out there. If a plant gives me too much trouble, it’s toast.  Right now I’m looking with evil intent at a couple of rose bushes.
Inspiration: My garden is my art; I was a working artist (the kind that actually makes money at it) when I was a young woman. Circumstances ended that career, and now the garden is my canvas.
Favorite plant: The kind that grow in the ground. I don’t have a favorite.  Every time I try to choose, I’ll think, oh but there’s that other one too, I like that too. Quick association? Corn, Horsetail rush, mixed perennials in bright colors.
Biggest challenge: Having to work for a living, plus the constant suspicion that I don’t really know what I’m dong. Also, marauding rabbits. I also can’t keep a houseplant thriving to save my life (or its).

What friends say: Jaws drop.

Biggest embarrassment: Stuff I don’t know. I’ve been gardening for almost a quarter century, and yet still I’ll find out something that every gardener seems to, or should, know. I just absorb the info and pretend I knew that already.

Proudest DIY: My entire life is DIY—I make it all up as I go along. But if you’re talking about building stuff, I am the world’s most disastrous DIYer. The term makeshift doesn’t begin to cover my incompetence. I make my husband and kids put in all the important stuff; they built a pond and a wall, several paths, a trellis, a flagstone patio, and installed three rain barrels.  I put in the little brick wall that keeps falling over.

Biggest indulgence: Gardening when I have other things I really should be doing.

Best advice: Don’t be afraid to get started.  Plants have been growing without our help for tens of millions of years. They’ll do just fine whether you know what you’re doing or not. For American backyard gardeners really nothing is at stake—if your garden fails, you can go to the grocery store (but when the Apocalypse comes, you’ll know how to feed yourself!)

ResourcesI really love Urhausen Greenhouse in Lincolnwood for plants, and Lurvey’s in DesPlaines, which is better than the Botanic Gardens in some ways, and almost as big. For seeds, I like to swap. I like to go to my local Ace or True Value for tools (I try to stay out of national chains, as a matter of philosophy). Seed swapping is so much fun, both for the variety of seeds you can find and for the friends you meet that it inspired me to finally get serious about seed saving.

Garden Tour:

Xan - thanks for participating.  Loved it!

If you would like to participate in Virtual Garden Tours, please email me at myskinnygarden (at) gmail (dot) com.


  1. It feels just like I was there. Oh, wait! I was! :) I really like Xan's garden and use the same strategy, just never thought to call it Darwinian. Clever. Everything has grown and changed so much since spring. :)

  2. P.S. LOL--just the other month a wise friend and fellow gardener told me something like "Now, you know the male flowers bloom first but the fruit comes from the female flowers." and I was nodding knowingly like, duh, every 4 year old knows that... when I really was like WTF?! Now I knew that some plants, esp. in the squash family, have male and female flowers and that the fruit come from the female, but I never thought about the timing of the bloom cycle or how it relates to pollination and felt all caught off guard. Plus, sometimes I forget stuff I once knew. I just think gardening is a journey, a process, a verb, and you're gonna need a nap occasionally!

  3. Great tour! I think you forgot to send me the survey. I did email you back saying I'd do it. I'm still interested if your still interested ;)

  4. Cool tour! I can relate to always learning something new. Nothing to feel ashamed of.