Gary Eanes tends the 1,500 plants in the Merrick Rose Garden. Photo by Janet McDonald

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Merrick Rose Garden, Evanston, Sept. 9, 2020: Gary Eanes (pronounced “Eenz”) dons his mask, grabs his rain gear from his truck, and escorts your reporters along a gravel path among the pinks and creams of September roses. The morning is drippy with rain, and Gary lays his rain gear across a memorial bench and takes a seat. After establishing a six-foot distance, we begin our conversation with the man who has maintained the stunningly beautiful Merrick Rose Garden since March 1998.

As a high school student on the north side of Chicago, Gary worked at Van Zelst’s lawn and garden center, where he began learning about horticulture. He attended North Park College and, after graduating, maintained the grounds there for six years. An interest in printing led him to complete a program at Lane Technical High School, after which he worked as a printer for seven years.

In 1995, his wife alerted him to a job opening with the City of Evanston, and he was hired to work in various capacities. When the longtime gardener Ambrose Kiss retired in 1998, Gary was given responsibility for the Merrick Rose Garden. Despite his many years working in landscaping, he knew very little about roses; so he purchased a copy of “Roses for Dummies” and read it cover-to-cover. He still keeps it in the glove compartment of his truck.

Fast forward to autumn 2020, and Gary is scanning the beds of hybrid tea roses, floribunda roses, and shrub roses that are the showpieces of the garden. He currently spends about 30 hours per week, over a span of four days, raking the gravel paths, weeding the beds, rejuvenating and mowing the grass, and deadheading roses. “Housekeeping,” he summarizes. “It’s mostly housekeeping.” And whispering – in the sense of gently but firmly coaxing beauty from every plant under his care. The garden contains some 1,500 individual rose plants, made up of 90 to 100 varieties.

 Each year Gary assesses the health of the plants and orders replacements from a variety of growers, all of which are located in America. (He explains that some rose varieties are hybridized in other countries and licensed to be grown in the United States.)

Because roses are bred for greater disease resistance, he finds they have become less finicky over the years. He makes selections based on color, height, spread, appearance of the blooms, and resistance to disease. New roses are planted in the spring.

Funding for the garden comes from City of Evanston Greenways (formerly known as the Parks Department) and from a bequest made by Richard Merrick, who passed away in 2003. (Richard was the son of attorney and Evanston alderman Clinton Merrick, for whom the garden had been named when it was established in 1948. A grandson of Clinton Merrick lives on the West Coast.)

For many years, varieties from All American Rose Selections were displayed, and some of their signage remains in the beds. The nearness of Lake Michigan makes conditions milder in Evanston, and the roses, selected for Zone 5, generally thrive.

Japanese beetles have not infested the garden in significant numbers. A combination of Gary’s housekeeping and Mother Nature’s gifts makes for a lush garden – unless that balance is upset. We mention that the garden looks especially beautiful this year compared with 2019, and Gary ruefully tells us he was off work for ten weeks last year due to an injury. It was obvious when the gardener’s caring hands were absent. This year his charges – especially the Julia Childs, Memorial Days, and Secrets that he likes best – have given us truly spectacular blooms.

Gary is assisted by other City employees with the heavy gardening tasks in fall and spring. 

Starting April 1, the team rakes out the spent compost from the beds and looks to see what has survived the winter. They prune any burned-out canes and dead tissue, carefully assessing every plant (in general, Gary has found only mild winterkill in the Merrick garden); and they plant the new bushes Gary has ordered.

In addition, they clean the jets and basin of the memorial fountain and prepare the system; and they mow the lawn and tend to any displaced brick- and stonework. The air starts to warm enough to force open the rose blooms in June.

The first hard frost, usually between Oct. 16 and 31, kills any late buds, and by Thanksgiving each year all the roses will have been fertilized and put to bed. Fresh compost is mounded around each plant’s base to protect the roots by allowing them to stay frozen throughout the winter. On days when conditions permit a winter walk in the garden, only the canes will be visible. Finally, on April 1 Gary begins the cycle again.

In April of this year, however, the garden most likely will be in another’s hands, as Gary hopes to retire after more than two decades tending the Merrick roses. Along with his wife, Melanie, who is a chaplain at Friendship Village retirement community in Schaumburg, he has raised a son, now working with Epic Systems (medical software) in Wisconsin, and a daughter, who is a senior at Knox College in Galesburg.

Gary is looking forward to spending more time at home, but roses will not be far from his thoughts: He has several in his garden, including a plant he has nurtured for 20 years. The variety is called Carefree, but it is clear he has cared for it, just as he has cared for the 1,500 plants that adorn the corner of Oak and Lake and give so much pleasure to us all.

Published in the Oak Court Condominium Newsletter, October 2020; reprinted with permission of the author

Song Still Blooms

“The Last Rose of Summer,” written in 1805 by Irish poet Thomas Moore, is a wistful contemplation of the loneliness a final bloom might feel in a garden at season’s end. Paired with a traditional tune, it soon became a song in the repertoire of folk music that continues to this day. And it is referred to by name in dozens of novels – from “The Vanished Diamond” by Jules Verne (1884) to “Ulysses” by James Joyce (1922) to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith (1943).

The poem sounds sentimental, on the way to maudlin. The poet considers the flower’s plight:

All her lovely companions are faded and gone;

No flower of her kindred, no rose-bud is nigh,

To reflect back her blushes or give sigh for sigh!

He makes a pledge:

            I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one to pine on the stem

And acts, presumably after cutting that last rose:

Thus kindly I scatter thy leaves o’er the bed,

Where the mates of the garden lie scentless and dead.           

Contrast the poet’s singular devotion to one final flower with the work of Gary Eanes, responsible for some 1,500 rose bushes in the Merrick Rose Garden.

I mention being intrigued by the melancholy idea of “the last rose of summer” soon after we begin talking about this work.  He chuckles, sets me straight. “We get a big bloom in September.” The plants’ first bloom comes about Father’s Day. A second happens later in summer. This third bloom will continue until the first hard frost. “So it’s the last rose of fall,” Gary says. 

Modern horticulture developed these “repeat flowering” roses that offer an abundance of blooming glory in a riot of color over many months. Merrick in September 2020 is a sight the Irish poet could never have even imagined 200 years ago, as he walked in Jenkinstown Park in County Kilkenny.  The blooms he gazed at were lush and many-petaled. Buds opened in gorgeous soft pastels that define the color “rose.”

But they flowered in June. And when the petals fell, there would be no more blossoms on the bushes till the following year.  Learning this, I’ve come to empathize with the lament surrounding that “last rose of summer.”

When will petals scatter from the final flowers in Merrick Rose Garden: That was the unanswered question in the article in the September-October issue, written when thousands of flowers were full and fresh in the third bloom of the year.  A walk down the gravel paths one recent November afternoon answered, “Not quite yet.” It’s the first hard frost that will finish the last of these.

Moore’s poem, the sheet music for the song and various renditions, going back as far as 1906, all are on the web. A search for “The Last Rose of Summer” brings up a bounty of sites. Wandering among them, you may come upon a selection of “old roses,” as those Moore wrote of are classified today.  Seems some gardeners still prize their remarkable, if fleeting, beauty

– Kathy Kastilahn