She's not the garden-variety geek

Janice Becker sits among the many flowers in her backyard garden in Deerfield, Ill. Becker calls herself a "plant geek" because of the number and variety of plants she has. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

CHICAGO - Good thing for Janice Becker's backyard - she swears she wasn't so good in the mama department when her kids were babies.

"I'm really a Type A. I needed to get out and do something," she says of those long-ago years when long naps punctuated the endless hours of the day.

She wandered no farther than the quarter-acre that surrounded the Deerfield, Ill., ranch house she had not set out to buy when hunting for a place to live back in 1983. What she and her husband, David Shaw, had wanted was a townhouse, a place with no yard whatsoever, because neither one of them had the least bit of interest in gardens.

Ah, but all stories worth spinning have twists of plot, and lucky for that backyard plot - at the time a "massive pile of buckthorn, and hawthorn and scrub" - Becker had had two babies.

And, well, the putzing around in the yard just led from one thing to another: Becker, who walks the yard in Muck boots, with clippers at the ready, is now a master gardener, an avid volunteer at the Chicago Botanic Garden's evaluation gardens. Nearly everyone who knows her birdhouse-studded garden - from the non-gardening neighbor across the street to the dozens who pass by her busy corner each day - seems inclined to call it Botanic Garden West.

Hers is not a garden upholstered in broad swaths of a few favorite plants, but rather a petit point of one sumptuous something bumping up against another, a canvas of floral abundance. Only the garden knows how much grows within its borders, but it hardly seems too much to estimate that it's a census in the many thousands.

"I'm just a plant geek, a real plant geek!" is how Becker bluntly puts it.

To prove her point, she produces a three-ring binder that's a good 4 inches thick. This is only one of three such binders, each an alphabetic listing of every single plant ever planted in her ever-creeping plots.

She records where and when she bought each specimen, where and when she planted it, what its real growing requirements are (never mind the labels that are often hit or miss). And should the poor thing die, she records its death.

"The reason you garden," she says, "is that it is the most positive thing you can do - you are always looking ahead. I never say, 'Oh my garden looked great yesterday or last week.' It's always, 'Wait'll you see what's next.' Yes, this is awesome but there's always something great that's just going to happen. It's always looking toward the next season. That's what you need to do in life."

Becker claims it was "a natural evolution" that transformed her from disinterested putterer to master gardener who tucks some 1,000 bulbs into the beds every fall, hauls countless wheelbarrow loads of leaf mulch every spring, and serves as the personal irrigation system, spending two-plus hours hand-watering every last thirsty plant or shrub or tree, wielding nothing fancier than five old-fashioned rubber hoses and her knack for knowing when and who needs a nice, tall drink.

When she started gardening, Becker followed the nascent gardener's timeline: began with annuals, trod into perennials, dabbled with shrubs and trees. But 12 years ago, she signed up for master gardener classes at the Botanic Garden, and was then assigned to work in the evaluation gardens.

"My plan was, very basically, to find the best and brightest at the Chicago Botanic Garden and volunteer for them," Becker says, "to indenture myself to them, which is exactly what I did." Martin King, formerly the manager of plant sales, and Richard Hawke, the garden's manager of plant evaluation programs, are her two horticultural mentors.

Clearly, she absorbed her teachers' every lesson. To come around the bend into Becker's backyard is to know that you have wandered into the well-loved plot of this plant collector who cannot be contained.

"The fact that there's any design at all is just because I knew what plant to put with what. There was no master plan. I just love plants, is all."

In fact, this garden that is now a geography of peninsulas and islands, with sweeping arcs and curves, started out once upon a time as straight lines that hugged the borders, rimmed the house.

But then to fit in that stellar weeping white spruce or that prizewinning Easy Does It rose (cantaloupey-mango would be its mouthwatering color), Becker grabbed the shovel and did what any hard-driving gardener does best: She dug another bed.

"I always had to make more room, and that's how the garden grew."