Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

City Gardeners Mulch to a Different Drummer

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

City Gardeners Mulch to a Different Drummer

Article excerpt

TWO SURPRISES awaited Leroy Durham in the garden the other morning: a half-empty bottle of cream soda lying in the lantana, and a mouse (rat!?) rooting through the bee balm.

Durham stoically accepts such affronts and doesn't take them personally. Urban gardeners, like their gardens, must be tough. It's not enough to prevail in the face of powdery mildew and tomato hornworms. The urban garden(er) must swallow more than its share of carbon monoxide, blast a root system through concrete and bounce back when drunks bed down in the petunias.

The garden in question grows inside a wrought-iron fence on the south side of the Centenary United Methodist Church at 16th and Pine streets. The church has stood on the corner for 124 years, the garden for less than 30. It was the labor of love of the late Mrs. Leland Hammel, who passed her charmed trowel on to Evelyn Lucky, who ceded it to Durham three years ago.

Actually, it was the church's pastor, Rev. Michael Tooley, who volunteered his friend, Durham, for the job. If reliability and attentiveness to detail are traits vital to good gardening, Durham was the perfect choice.

"I held the world record for school attendance," said Durham, 73, a retired trigonometry teacher. "Kindergarten through four college degrees, and I never missed a day. I was in `Ripley's Believe It or Not in 1944.' "

Durham had dirt experience, too. He grew gobs of tomatoes in his hometown, Moberly, Mo. He once raised a mutant lily with a stem as thick as a cucumber and 72 buds - 36 of which bloomed. It died the next year, a victim of its own excess.

Once a week, Durham comes to the church to water, weed and prune. It is pure joy in spring, tending the lilies and daffodils. But it can be depressing, he admits, ministering to run-out petunias, marigolds and zinnias in September.

Which is why the church's garden looks enviably good to one whose garden has shrunk to a scrag of tomato vines and sulky perennials. The white and pink phlox here are still in bloom. The yellow lantana (soda bottle notwithstanding) is splendid. The volunteer alyssum has spilled through the fence like seafoam and crashed onto the sidewalk. …

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