The Original Green Thumb

Profile: Elvin McDonald has been digging in and branching out for half a century, and he's still enthusiastic about the future of gardening.

February 28, 1999|By Joan Jackson | Joan Jackson,Knight Ridder/Tribune

There is only one garden guru in America, and his name is Elvin McDonald. Oh, sure, he might not be as widely recognized as Martha Stewart, but McDonald has been a leading horticultural authority for nearly 50 years.

So, who better to ask about the status of gardening in America?

"It's great. Wonderful," says McDonald, while promoting his new book, "100 Orchids for the American Gardener" (Workman, $17.95).

"One of the great blessings we have today is that the immense popularity of gardening has made competition greater: The plants and seeds are better; the magazines and books are better; some of the TV shows are better. Also, the global impact of the Internet and e-mail is having a profound effect on gardens and gardeners," he says with the hearty enthusiasm that is his trademark.

McDonald started the American Gloxinia and Gesneriad Society in 1951 when he was 14 -- and never stopped digging in.

McDonald has written more than 50 garden books, served as editorial consultant to Smith & Hawken's "Outdoor Garden Book" and was editor-in-chief of the American Horticultural Society's Encyclopedia of Gardening, and was co-host of the PBS series "Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn." And that's just in the past couple of years.

He is currently senior editor at Traditional Home magazine in Des Moines, Iowa, and was named to the Garden Writers Association of America Hall of Fame.

McDonald trained to be an opera singer, but was sidetracked by his green thumb. "I was lucky enough to be born with the gardener gene. Call it a green thumb if you will, but gardeners are by nature hopeful and happy. The changing of the seasons keeps us moving. Accepting responsibility for other living things will get you up and out of your bed when almost nothing else will," McDonald, 61, says.

Changes -- oh, yes, there are many. Take pesticides, for instance.

In a newspaper picture taken in his home greenhouse in 1953, McDonald is spraying a gloxinia plant he's holding in his bare hands. No mask. Nothing to protect himself. The spray is DDT.

At that time, DDT was considered safe. "Fast-forward to 1996 and I saw reported in the Avant Gardener that Roundup is the single largest cause of pesticide-related illness in the California nursery industry. I don't use any pesticides or herbicides. I do use insecticidal soap, nothing else," he says.

But the gloxinia in his hand did foretell the future -- in a way. When "The World Book of House Plants" was published in 1963, it had modest sales. Ten years later it became a best seller and was the bible during the houseplant craze of the 1970s. It sold nearly 2 million copies.

"I constantly meet passionate gardeners who tell me it was the book that got them started when they were in college," he says. "And I sense that they are amazed I'm still alive."

At any rate, he says, "The houseplant craze segued into growing your own vegetables, which segued into perennials ... into butterfly gardens ... into ornamental grass ... into xeriscaping ... into gravel gardening ... into the structure, structure, structure preached by my colleague Penelope Hobhouse, until today we all want everything in our gardens."

While some garden celebrities talk the talk, McDonald also walks the walk by getting his hands dirty in his own garden in Des Moines.

"When I am planting, I know I am hopeful for what is going to spring up and grow and bloom," he says.

Gloxinias are his first love but he has grown -- and written about -- everything from sunflowers to roses to herbs. His new orchid book focuses on the basic "how-to" of growing them.

"I love all plants and really can't make any pronouncements [about favorites]. I have about 700 rose bushes in my garden," he says.

So, what would he like to do next? How about a space flight like John Glenn?

"I would go into space to do gardening experiments on a moment's notice! Call me crazy, but one reason I have been so fanatical about staying in top physical condition since I was 40 and started running regularly is that in the event I should ever be asked to go into space, I wanted to be fit and ready," he says.

NASA, are you listening?

How his garden grows

Elvin McDonald's garden design is Moroccan in feeling.

"In front there is a four-bed formal bulb garden for spring that segues into a Persian carpet of coleus, plectranthus and ornamental sweet potato vines in the summer," he says.

In front of the house there are 20 matching 'Red Jewel' flowering crab apple trees planted in a modular arrangement to create a private park with benches.

Two Chinese moon gates, which were added to the garden fence, permit neighbors to look in and see the garden as they walk, bicycle, skate or drive by.

He remodeled "the ugliest toolshed in Iowa" by adding French doors, then painting the toolshed dove gray and putting white lattice on top of the gray paint.

"It has sisal on the floor and a big round dining table built with logs broken from trees on the property during a storm," he says.

The 8-by-20-foot dining pavilion is built of dove-gray, plastic privacy lattice, and it is also lined with a fabric, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with tiebacks, and looks quite elegant. This is at the back of the garden, on an axis with the French doors that open onto the deck.

Also on the deck is "a great potting bench that doubles as a place to serve food and drinks from for buffet-style dining," he says. "Home improvement centers such as Home Depot always have a tradesmen's workbench kit, usually on sale at about $50. Spend a little more for some lumber to build shelving above the surface and you have a great potting bench that is sturdy enough to dance on."

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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