Chris Tidrick, the director of information technology for UI Extension, often includes photos of items in his yard in his blog. | Photos by Chris Tidrick
Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of Inside Illinois’ summer series. Previous stories have focused on the professionals who make campus gardens beautiful and bountiful all year long. In this final story, we focus on individual UI gardeners–employees who leave the office each day and go home to create their own backyard paradises.
Chris Tidrick claims neither to be a horticulturist nor to have ever played one on TV. He’s just a guy who likes to chat about plants.
Tidrick, a 19-year employee and the director of information technology for UI Extension, has for the past three years taken his love of home gardening to the World Wide Web through his blog, “From the Soil.”
“It’s great because you suddenly have something in common with millions of other people,” he said. “If you meet a gardener, there’s instantly a common language you share.”
And Tidrick’s Web presence has legs, or in his case, tentacle vines. He already has amassed 850 friends on Facebook and 2,100 Twitter followers.
Tidrick grows a wide variety of flowers, plants and vegetables in the yard of his Champaign residence, as well as rare-to-Illinois tropical plants such as his prized bananas and elephant ears.
On the blog he discusses all of them, regularly posting photos of his favorites.
“It’s actually several different gardens,” he said of his quarter-acre cornucopia, which was blade after blade of unproductive grass when his family first moved there.
“It’s been changing from a sun garden to a shade garden,” he said, noting the plant canopy’s continuing expansion and encroachment.
For Tidrick, the garden has become a secret world within itself – with him happily lost at the center of it, directing it and nurturing it.
“It’s truly therapeutic for me,” he said. “I’m at a computer all day long, so when I come home, I like looking at pretty things in my yard. It brings animals and insects into town and brings everything to life.”
He’s quick to note he’s not a plant expert, though working around Extension’s staff of experts has its benefits.
“Working for Extension wasn’t a conscious thing but it’s been a nice resource to have,” he said. “The people who work here are incredibly knowledgeable.”
Tidrick gardened as a child and was influenced by his grandmother Bernardine, whose rose garden he and his mother used to help tend. He said he fell out of the gardening practice during his high school and college days.
“When you’re younger you just don’t get the opportunity to garden,” he said. “Then you buy a house and a lawn and that itch starts coming back. It started with her (grandma); I just picked it back up.”
Tidrick said he gets ample help with watering from his wife, Mindy. He said the task that has become doubly time-consuming with this summer’s drought. He’d like to pass the green art on to his son, Jacob, but so far the 10-year-old isn’t enamored with the idea.
“I’ve had trouble convincing my son it’s a good thing,” he said. “There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogging world and horticulture industry whether or not the next generation is going to garden or not. I think for most it’s just a matter of gardening being something that looks more appealing later in life.”
Cathy Cunningham, a clerical worker for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey for 10 years, likes pretty flowers, but her home-garden focus is almost singular: To grow and consume the freshest, juiciest produce she can. | Photo by Jeff Cunningham
Cathy Cunningham grows vegetables for a purely selfish reason: She likes to eat them.
“I like growing them, but I love to harvest,” said the clerical worker, who has worked for 10 years at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. “If you take care of things it’s like getting free produce.”
She’s not really selfish. She said one of the best parts of gardening is the social aspect of sharing bounties with others.
“I give a lot away and people seem to appreciate it,” she said.
Cunningham has grown other plants in the 15 years she’s lived at her Urbana residence, most notably natural prairie flowers.
But it’s the garden vegetables that led her three years ago to learn more about the soil and complete the Master Gardener course. She grows all the staples, including tomatoes, beans and lettuce – all of which make it to someone’s table.
“My parents always had a garden and I’ve been doing it ever since I was able to find my own patch of ground,” she said. “Once we bought a house it was plant, plant, plant.”
And since then it has changed, changed, changed.
“It’s something that’s always evolving,” she said. “If something gets too big, I just move it someplace else.”
She said becoming a Master Gardener altered the way she approaches her garden.
“I have a better understanding of the different plant families and what their needs are,” she said. “It’s definitely enhanced my garden experience.”
As much as anything, the class led to connections with people who took gardening as seriously as she does. She continues to take part in the organization’s activities.
“You always get ideas from talking to other gardeners,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of friends and picked up something from each of them.”
This year, Cunningham has the complaint that all gardeners share: Watering has taken over their lives.
“It’s been like performing triage this year,” she said.
And some of the patients (and likely an impatiens or two) likely won’t make it.
“It almost looks like it’s fall around here,” she said. “I know I’ve already lost some things. I’ve targeted some of the trouble spots and have had to pick and choose which ones I think I can save.”
Unhappy with this summer’s water bills, Cunningham has developed new conservation techniques. She saves leftover cooking and dishwashing water, as well as the contents of the home’s dehumidifier, for the garden.
Her husband, Jeff, the production manager for WILL-TV, also lends a hand in the garden – though both consider Cathy’s thumbs the greenest.
“He likes planting the trees, he helps me water and he likes the produce,” she said. “He also likes sitting outside and just enjoying the plants in our yard. But I wouldn’t say he’s a weeder.”
And that’s the other selfish pleasure she gets from coaxing country life from her city yard – sitting back and watching it all when the work’s finished.
“It brings you a sense of peace and calm because you have time to reflect,” she said. “It’s a time away from the phone, the TV and the computer. There’s always something new to discover.”
UI employees Melissa Edwards and Alex Breen thought adding flowers and vegetables would reduce their yard workload when they moved in nine years ago – but it didn’t work out that way. While the grass has retreated, the couple spends a good part of their year planning, planting and canning. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
When Alex Breen and Melissa Edwards moved into their Champaign residence nine years ago, they were taken in by the common misconception that planting flowers and a small vegetable garden would reduce the time they’d have to spend working on the yard.
“We started with nothing,” said Breen, a 23-year UI employee and assistant director for solution services for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services. “There wasn’t a tree, a bush or a flower in the backyard.”
Ask them about the workload now, in a yard where grass has become an invasive minority, and the best you can expect is a roll of the eyes or a tired laugh.
“It was just a sea of grass,” said Edwards, an 11-year UI employee and the director of communications for the university Office of the Vice President for Research. “It took so long to mow – we were just trying to avoid yard work. But it’s really branched out and evolved since then.”
The couple’s backyard is nearly entirely covered by greenery, with plants, flowers and vegetables filling in almost every crack and crevice of the property. The front yard shows signs of following suit.
“It seemed like such a waste to us not to take advantage of this good Illinois soil,” she said.
“We have everything you can imagine,” he said. “We have (planting) beds all over the backyard and a few in the front.”
The vegetable variety numbers about 20, and there are grapes and raspberries and herbs – and even a thing or two they may have forgotten about. They use organic techniques and work to make the garden both beautiful and functional, an approach Edwards calls “edible landscaping.”
“It’s a little scary how much we’ve packed in here,” he said. “This year we’ve had to water almost all the time but we’re still not getting the yields we normally get.”
“We’ve picked up different tips and techniques along the way,” she said. “Our philosophy is, ‘plant a whole bunch and something will come up.’ ”
The couple spends each spring planning and plotting together, and when the work starts, it gets divided equally as well. Breen is the appointed vegetable garden manager, Edwards the flower garden stylist.
“We both do both, but I think I bring more of an artistic sensibility with things,” she said.
“Most of the time it works out really well,” he said. “But sometimes she wants to do one thing and I’ll want to do something different. It always works out.”
They both like to cook, and they hand-can many of the harvested vegetables. They make their own pickles, hot sauces, jellies, jams and whatever else their imaginations can conjure.
“It’s been seven years since we’ve bought tomatoes at the store,” Edwards said. “I don’t even think I could eat one from the store anymore.”
“It’s been rewarding because we’ve literally gotten to see the fruits of our labor,” Breen said.
Breen has been knee-deep in a vegetable garden since eighth grade, when he started working on a vegetable farm located in Chicago’s western suburbs. He rode his bike to work for six summers before earning his degree in food engineering from the UI in 1989.
“It was one of those things growing up that I liked to do,” he said. “I’ve learned by trial and error, watching the Food Channel and talking to people. I can everything I can.”
Melissa gardened “sporadically” with her family growing up in a small town near Peoria.
After initially dreading mowing, the couple found they were reconnecting with the earth through the little patch of dirt in their backyard. They found they increasingly were longing to get back to the yard.
“If you had a bad experience gardening as a kid, I encourage you to try it again,” she said. “I hope more and more people embrace this as something they can do.”
Edwards said she thinks gardening should be encouraged as a way to combat increasingly unsteady economic and environmental factors. She said it’s also a way to escape the bustle of city life – without leaving home.
“One of the best parts, after all the work is done, is to just sit back and watch and listen,” she said. “I see things here I never expected to see in town. I like seeing how things change from year to year. Ours is kind of a jungle, but it makes me proud. I’ve found my passion.”