Man uses botanical skills to beautify senior housing

EVANTSON — The residents at The Homestead on Uinta Street in Evanston have had their lives enriched by the hard work and persistence of one man. Ed Close, who also resides at the housing for senior citizens, has spent four years creating a beautiful and inspiring flower garden for all to enjoy.

The units are operated by Evanston Housing Authority and were built at the end of Uinta County Memorial Hospital, which is no longer in use. When Ed moved into the housing unit, he found a plot of ground at the end of the parking lot behind the building. He asked the housing authority if he could plant in it and they gave him the go-ahead.

The raised area is surrounded by a 6-foot-wide concrete wall that’s 40 feet high. The plot was full of sucker trees, wild currants, tall thistle and every weed imaginable including deadly nightshade. Ed said nightshade contains four alkaloid toxins and is toxic to humans and animals, yet residents were letting their dogs run and dig in the dirt there.  

He spent the first month digging with a potato fork and pulling out the weeds. Because of his arthritis, he could only work three to four hours a day. When he had cleared the area, he brought in some perennial plants from his former home and put those in along with a variety of seeds.  

“The first year it was pretty sparse and it took a lot of weeding,” Ed said. “I use Miracle-Gro with Bloom Booster and put it on in the early spring on top of snow so as it melts the fertilizer goes into the soil; I never use any chemicals or toxins.”

As an amateur botanist, Ed has learned how to extract DNA from one plant and inject it into another to create hybrids. His specialty is the clematis vine species. One spectacular vine that originates in Mongolia is the tangutica, which comes from the same latitude and nearly the same elevation as here in Wyoming.

The species grows to an average of 20 feet but could grow up to 27 feet high. The flower heads look like a little yellow bell. A mature vine can have 5,000 to 10,000 blooms. The seed head is quite unique in that it looks like a hairy umbrella.

His favorite clematis vine is a hybrid he created and calls “Stumpy.” He extracted the DNA from the flower of the Radar Love clematis and injected it into the heart of the flower of the Markham’s pink clematis. He uses a vortex machine to liquefy the pollen. Stumpy’s botanical name is Edwardian Pink. The flowers of Stumpy are a beautiful blend of white and pink.

The first five years, Stumpy gre only 9 and a half inches, and the first year, Ed said, the plant was confused and grew 14 different kinds of leaves. Halfway through the fifth year, Stumpy started climbing and this last year grew to over 5 feet. Now that Stumpy is in a new home, Ed is waiting to see if the hybrid holds true to seed so he can patent the species, which he said is the only one of its kind in the world.

Ed plants mostly North American varieties.

“I look for the origin of a plant and environmental factors such as elevation and matching latitude, in particular, then they will do better here,” he said. “I also plant the flowers thick, so weeds don’t have a chance.  I do very little weeding now.”

Another interesting vine that normally grows in Zone 7 is the Montana odorata. The white blooms smell like vanilla and lemon. It took five years for the vine to acclimate to Evanston. The plant originates in Japan and China.

Another creation of Ed’s is what he calls “Eddie’s Blue.” He created it by crossing three different varieties of cranesbill geranium. It has a small lavender blue flower and fills one area of the garden plot.  Ed recommends the cranesbill geranium for anyone’s garden to attract bees.

If gardeners have a problem with deer, Ed recommends they plant fever few, which the deer will not eat. Ed has lived in Evanston for 40 years and said he has never had a problem with deer eating his flowers because he plants fever few all around them. The deer will also avoid the Shasta daisy and the Marguerite daisy. 

“I swear by fever few,” he said. “The deer will only come once to a garden after they taste the fever few — they spit it out and never come back. They tell each other, ‘That supermarket is bad,’” Ed said with a laugh.

Ed plants well over 20 plants, including his hybrids. He advises flower gardeners to experiment and not to be afraid to try something new, as long as the plants have the ability to survive Wyoming’s climate and elevation.

He has created an outdoor “living room” near the flower garden, with lawn furniture and a coffee table under the shade of the large pine trees that grow on the rise above the parking lot. The residents gather there in early morning with their coffee cups and in the late afternoon and evening to share stories and camaraderie.