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How Lucky Am I? A Tribute




We meet a lot of people in our life journey. Most of these encounters are fleeting -- because of the circumstances and/or we do not want more time together, i.e., a little was enough, or too much :) However, occasionally we get lucky. One of my luckiest days occurred about a decade ago when Lisa and Dan Burnham came to shop at a garden center where I was working part-time as a plant specialist. The place was Rosie's on the north side of Indianapolis. For several decades Rosie's has been one of the top destinations for many serious gardeners. Rosie's features an excellent inventory, especially woody species, thanks in large part to my buddy Ryan Volz. The gardening community owes him a debt of gratitude. Ryan, who is a Purdue horticulture grad, is charged with the selection and care of the trees and shrubs at Rosie's. Re the clientele at Rosie's or elsewhere, I could and can tell the real plant lovers (the hardcore gardeners) by what they purchase as well as by how and what they were looking at, and how much time they spent surveying. The interesting ones (the genuine gardeners) had/have that admiring or contemplative stance and gaze, and would often linger. Dan and Lisa did so that day, and it was not their first trip to Rosie's. Incidentally, a 70-mile one-way trip for them. I watched them for awhile from afar before approaching to introduce myself. I like plant people and was overly curious to find out who these intriguing strangers were. What a great decision! I discovered that not only are they charming, they also are extraordinary gardeners. Additionally, it quickly was obvious they are not at all pretentious and have a healthy sense of humor. You may not realize it but these traits, which foretell the ability to be genuinely objective and self-reflective, are important in gardening, never mind life in general. We would do well to remember that there is much truth in the old saying, laughter is the best medicine. Furthermore, Lisa and Dan are considerate. That is, when they hear something different or contrary to what they do, or have heard, rather than being defensive and reflexively rejecting, their reaction would probably be to say interesting or an inquisitive, really. That is, they show careful thought. A wonderful trait but I find it uncommon. I also learned that they have traveled far and wide over many years visiting gardens and enjoying plants. They are addicted! Hortiholics. And what a wonderful obsession it is. Moreover, as my longtime friend and astute ecophilosopher Gerould Wilhelm commonly states, plants don't lie nor do they have a political agenda. If one is willing to be aware, to look and listen, you can learn the truth they tell. Dan and Lisa do.


Lisa is originally from Bloomington (IN). while Dan hails from southern California. Dan is a few years older than me; I turned 70 last year. You may recognize the name (Burnham). His great grandfather was a prominent architect and urban designer. In fact, his namesake was a giant -- think helping rebuild the Windy City (the Chicago Plan) after the Great Fire, or the 1893 Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair AKA "White City"), or the first skyscraper, or DC's Union Station, or the Flatiron Building (NYC) or . . .! Daniel IV was a hort/ag student at UC Santa Barbara, St. Luis Obispo, and finally Santa Clara. Lisa is an Indiana University biology grad who got to assist the remarkable botanist Charlie Heiser. This was before IU and most universities decided to diminish botany and natural history -- see my What Are We Doing? presentation under Rothrock Sedge Symposium. Lisa subsequently got another diploma from the now defunct DuPage (IL) Horticultural School. Lisa and Dan met while working in western Chicago. She was employed at Pan American Seed while Dan was nearby at George J. Ball. Marriage followed and for four decades they have lived on a large (145 acres) mostly wooded spread 8 miles NE of Bloomington (IN) of which they somehow manage to garden about 8 acres!! Moreover, like me, they do practically all the associated activities themselves which makes what they have created even more impressive. They are the gardeners, and exceptional dedicated ones!!! True landscape artists. Among the best in the region, and certainly as good as the best I have known (Wesley Whiteside). Their skill is on display in their magnificent private garden which is impressive year-round! It is resplendent, species and cultivar rich, and well maintained. I regularly tease them about how weed-free their place is (see footnote*) compared to the rest of us, and amazingly so given its size, but their masterpiece is not formal (i.e., symmetrical with lots of sheared geometric shapes). Rather, their 'garboretum' has a pleasing natural yet sophisticated feel owing to their design talent and diverse preference. (See the glossary addendum under BOOK for definition) The way they garden is an art form, and one we should emulate, although many of their choices would trouble those who genuflect at the natives only altar. Several times Dan and Lisa have graciously permitted me the opportunity to share their place with some of my gardening / botanical acquaintances and friends. It is fun witnessing the admiring surprise and awed expression on the faces of the invitees and the WOWs that regularly burst from their lips. Moreover, while humble, Lisa and Dan are delighted to share their vast horticultural knowledge. They are superb teachers (an impromptu master class every time we are together) and hungry students, too -- great listeners and asking as much as answering. Always wanting to know more, and how to improve -- to find a better way.


Dan and Lisa once had a thriving gardening business on their homestead. It was called Burnham Woods Nursery. Alas, a serious health issue forced them to shutdown the business in 2006, after 17 years in operation. Things are okay now. They have used the time since then to fine-tune their skills while attending to their grounds, and it is obvious. Lisa and Dan possess all the traits one would expect in great gardeners, e.g., patient, bright, phenomenal work ethic, exceptional siting / pairing / sequencing ability, and they are curious and observant -- clinical through aesthetic. Furthermore, unlike the average gardener, they consider more than color, and gardening is more than plants. Moreover, Dan and Lisa have a marvelous property on which to display their passion and talent. They are a great team and true masters, but not Master Gardeners :) -- see my Nov 2021 rant. I am delighted that we have become close friends. HOW LUCKY AM I?! [pause] One of my great regrets is not having met this dynamic duo earlier in my journey. Nonetheless, I am ever so thankful for the special priceless gift of their friendship, the shared gardening expertise, as well as their willingness to tolerate me. I treasure the opportunity and words I get to share with them from time to time -- opportunity is my word of the month. Some of our recent conversations have focused on gardening as we get older. The exchange has been both thought-provoking and very useful. I hope it can continue for many more moons.


Are there truly great gardeners and exceptional gardens in your area? I would want to know and cultivate a relationship. And remember, Mother Nature is an excellent coach, if you allow yourself to be mindful.


* How is it Lisa and Dan have so few weeds? They (1) never let things get out of control (super attentive), (2) use lots of mulch (mostly wood chips, see picture behind the Verbena bonariensis, as well as leaves when they can get them) and utilize them in the best way, (3) are supremely dedicated (i.e., take pride in their effort, as well they should, some of the work quite demanding) and make the effort consistently, see #1, (4) have a country location, away from city pollution (things and stuff), although they get the country weeds, (5) strategize about and address the onerous and important task of edging, (6) are NOT afraid to edit, and (7) avoid troublesome taxa and attempt to keep in check the few used for a specific purpose, like erosion control, this includes the willingness to use biocides when necessary, and it sometimes is. As I said, they are outstanding gardeners and wonderful people! As good as it gets. And they are my friends. How lucky am I!


The top picture was taken at their property, the bottom picture was taken on a trip to Australia (the lavender tree is Jacaranda and the golden beauty is a flowering acacia).


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