This month, I retired from the University of Minnesota, exactly 28 years to the day from when I began my job as an extension specialist in horticulture. Though I no longer work for the U, I plan to continue writing for the Home & Garden section of the Star Tribune and to be a regular guest on Minnesota Public Radio. Maybe I'll even have time to care for my own plants.
Thinking back to 1977, I can't help but marvel at how times have changed. In those days, the letters we received with gardening questions were almost always addressed: "Dear Sir." And, on hearing my voice, callers would often ask to speak to the "man in charge."
Because I've been in the question-and-answer business, I've received my share of odd questions, such as: "Do pickles grow up to become cucumbers or do cucumbers grow up to become pickles, or is neither true? Isn't there anything such as a pickled pickle?" And then there was the man who wanted to know how to use chicken eggs to make fertilizer. (I referred him to a local horticulturist who responded that it was the other product of chickens that made fertilizer.)
I've also received some odd samples. One writer sent in a few leaflets and wanted me to identify the rose from which they came. (It can't be done. You need to see the flowers.) Another sent a plastic twig complete with polyester leaves. A manufacturer of decorative silk plants sent it in hopes I could identify it. He had seen something like it growing outdoors in China.
Over the years, I've also seen a number of gardening trends take hold.
It wasn't that long ago that gardeners began a love affair with flowering perennials, an affair that shows no signs of abating. There are now so many choices of flowering perennials that some people keep expanding their gardens just to accommodate them. The overwhelming popularity of perennials has kick-started a renaissance in the production of flowering annuals, as well, with many new "branded" plants sold in individual containers at premium prices.
Shrub roses also have become far more popular. And while there are plenty of dedicated rose growers who are willing to expend the extra effort needed to overwinter hybrid teas and other tender roses, many gardeners are interested in the expanding selection of hardy shrub roses, which require minimal winter protection.
As a group, gardeners have become more environmentally aware. It's now common to seek chemical-free ways of dealing with diseases, weeds and insects.
In addition, there's growing interest in using native plants in gardens and landscapes. Natives are becoming favorites because they are well-adapted to our soil and climate conditions, and because they often are less prone to insects, diseases and weather-related maladies.
There are more recent trends: the growing interest in heirloom flowers and vegetable seeds, water gardens, ornamental grasses and rain gardens, which can help protect the water quality.
It all goes to show why I love horticulture: It's such a dynamic field -- always evolving, and always presenting new challenges.
Deb Brown, a horticulturist and garden writer, recently retired from the University of Minnesota Extension Service.