Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois: a many-seasoned garden

Bob Gabella‘s garden is situated in Villa Park, Illinois. Having spent the bulk of his life in the Horticulture industry, and having nurtured his interest in plants from a young age, Bob has honed his self-dubbed ‘haven from the world’ in spite of the hugely varying seasonal weather.  His garden is 0.5 acres in size, on rich creek bottom land.

Backyards of the world: Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois
Hiding in the Brugmansia

1. Please tell us who you are, where you live and what you do for a living.

I’m Robert F. (Bob) Gabella; I live and garden in Villa Park, Illinois (USDA Zone 5B on the new map, 5A on the old) in the near-west suburbs of Chicago.  I’m a Horticultural consultant, hybridist, author and photographer with over 30 years in the Horticulture industry – many more as a home gardener since early childhood.  In the recent decade and a half, my career and additional schooling have branched into technology integration and business process optimization, originally for a firm that developed production management systems for large commercial growers, but now includes cardholder data security (PCI DSS).  That makes my home garden even more of a retreat, as those left-brain activities take a far greater toll on a person’s soul!

2. Please give some brief details about your garden, e.g. size, aspect, general soil type.

My “haven from the world” is on a lightly wooded half-acre in old construction, with a postage stamp sized house (built in 1941) and many gardens connected by turf pathways. The soil here in eastern DuPage County is creek bottom land, richer than that in areas not far to the west where, with new construction, they sell you back your topsoil an inch at a time after stripping it bare to build.

Backyards of the world: Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois
My favorite dark tomato – Solanum lycopersicum ‘Black Krim’

3. Why is it important for you to create a nice garden?

My garden is a sanctuary – a refuge from the heavy burdens and stark news of the world, where I can both explore and share my connection to the Earth.  The garden teaches patience – mastering plants as well as structure and design, to present the plantings in the best way possible. This can be difficult as a collector and breeder of Iris and Hemerocallis, I don’t want them to look like corn in rows, as that’s definitely how some collectors present them.

4. How many hours a week do you spend working on your garden?

I can spend up 24 hours working the gardens in season but usually less than half that.  There’s a big rush with the spring and fall cleanup to complete great amounts of work. Also after long periods of torrential rain, may come a relentless push for weed management, staking, grooming, detailing, and plant health management.

Backyards of the world: Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois
Passiflora incarnata – iconic US native a trending topic and subject of much research into native/alternative fruit production, also contributes hardiness and great looks to many modern Passiflora hybrids

5. How much leisure time do you spend in your garden and what do you do?

It varies, but I always make time to stand back and take it all in.  Though my largest open green space in back is a bit lumpy, in need of professional grading, I enjoy Frisbee and bocce there. To prevent future ankle twists (mine or others’!) I’ll need to have that addressed.  My 3-season room, which I gutted, tiled and rehabbed personally, is an extension of the home and offers great garden views, plus space for entertaining mosquito-free.

6. What is your most prized plant and why?

Oh that’s so hard to say – I’m always standing in front of a plant, saying it’s my favorite!

Backyards of the world: Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois
Silver Spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) on Zinnia elegans ‘Burpeeana Giant Mix’

7. Which plant do you feel gives the best value in your garden?

For annuals, who doesn’t love a Zinnia? They are thrifty, quick from seed, an easy plant with which to engage new gardeners of all ages – and they come in the most ridiculous clown colors!  There’s a size and configuration to suit almost every taste. For perennials, Hemerocallis are hard to beat but they’re not all great – and there are way too many mediocre ones, the commonality can make them less desirable!   So my breeding efforts concentrate on those that have long bloom season and rebloom, in colors other than yellow and orange. My originations may not have the fanciest of flowers, but those now under evaluation perform.  I think (or hope) that’s what many home gardeners want.

8. What is/has been your biggest challenge in this garden?

In this harsh climate, definitely weather and weeds.  It means choosing plants well, shifting methods to the seasonal variations that get thrown at us.  Our temperatures range from -27°F to +108°F, with every combination of moisture, and in the cold seasons – insulating snow cover (or lack thereof!).  One must maintain a constant vigilance to the growth cycles of weeds. I try to get annual weeds out before they drop seeds and perennial weeds out in the least impactful method possible.   I do use some chemical controls but try to be very measured in this approach.

Backyards of the world: Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois
Thornless blackberry, Rubus ‘Arapaho’

9. What has been your biggest gardening disaster?

Hmmm, I’ve had one (or more) of every disaster imaginable!  A derecho 3 years ago wiped out a mature deciduous Azalea collection when a large tree crashed onto it; my own bad timing has impacted plants with sensitive growth cycles; squirrels and chipmunks have scooped up 1,000 carefully planted Crocus overnight; and a sewer line reconstruction contractor placed my gorgeous topsoil at the bottom of a 10-foot trench and the clay subsoil at the top. But in the garden, we learn to roll with the punches!

10. What is your favourite gardening shortcut or tip, and who taught you?

Before I purchased the home, I rented from friend and fellow gardener, Carol Benedyk, of Bloomington, Indiana. She said don’t beat yourself up if you don’t finish everything in one day. With luck, there will be more days and there will always be more work.  My maternal Grandfather, the late Ewald Nepp, on a similar note said “everything is relative.”   He also, after a move from Minnesota to arid, water-wise Colorado, taught the importance of watering directly at the roots, not spraying randomly at the plant or through the air.

Backyards of the world: Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois
Zinnia elegans ‘Burpeeana Giant Mix’

11. Which plant do you wish you could grow, but cannot?

Meconopsis.  Oh, I’ve tried and I’ve tried but our Midwest summers confound them even if they make it through the winter.  So I enjoy vicariously the photos, posts and articles from parts of the world where they do well!

12. What is your oldest plant, and how old is it?

I have 2 of the original 4 Swiss Stone Pines (Pinus cembra), planted in 1988, purchased at my first job after graduating with my Horticulture degree; they were little 2-foot specimens in 2 gallon pots and are now mature.   Sadly, 2 years ago, Pine Sawyer Beetle (which attacks non-native Pines here) claimed a single tree in the front yard and one of a trio in back. I’m now contemplating removal of the remaining two because it’s too hard to find a match, certainly nothing available of mature size, and I want another trio in that space.  It’s amazing the decisions we can make regarding life and death of plants!

Backyards of the world: Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois
“Do all pines go to Heaven?” But of course, and this Pinus cembra, Swiss stone pine, may join its companions soon!

13. Where do you find information on which plants to grow and how to care for them?

An autodidact since childhood, I read voraciously, and frequently visit Botanical and trial gardens, production and retail nurseries, as well as trade shows and industry events.  I also travel a great deal (from early childhood we were on the move, my Dad was an army officer, so I’ve gardened from Florida to Alaska, Texas and Colorado to the east coast) and survey the natural landscapes wherever I go.  Years ago, I annoyed the program coordinator at the local community college by insisting on testing out of coursework required for my Horticulture degree. And there’s nothing like a recommendation from a gardening friend. Or from the rich palette of Industry contacts which I am blessed to have.

14. Do you grow anything to eat, and which have you had the most success with?

I’ve grown nearly everything edible at least once and I always come back to the ones that reward me the most: tomatoes, chillies, tomatillos, eggplant, all manner of brassicas, spinach, beets, chard, lettuce, cucumbers, squashes and melons.  I also grow a few apples, a fig, a peach, small fruits like red, white and black currants, gooseberries, blackberries. I especially enjoy native fruits like serviceberry (Amelanchier) and chokeberry (Aronia), as well as seedless grapes.  Plus I eat many of my weeds like lambs quarters, amaranth, purslane and dandelion.  It helps that I know my way around the kitchen!

Backyards of the world: Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois
A Tall Bearded Iris seedling under evaluation

15. Do you admire any famous gardeners or gardens?

Definitely admire Dr. Allan Armitage, he’s done so much to evangelize herbaceous plants and make information accessible to both professionals and home gardeners. Likewise Tony Avent of Plant Delights – Juniper Level Botanic Gardens, whose humorous yet informational approach is extremely engaging.  I grew up and am still strongly influenced by the writings of the legendary T.H. Everett, Ruth Stout and Katherine S. White, and so many others – with an extensive Horticultural Library I refer to their work weekly if not daily.

Favorite public gardens include Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania – world class and dripping with examples of what unlimited resources can do (one of the DuPont family estates); and Denver Botanic Garden, an urban showcase of plants amenable to the colder parts of the arid Southwest.  In addition to three local conservatories, our area is lucky to have Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois; the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois; and The Gardens at Ball Horticultural in West Chicago, Illinois.

Backyards of the world: Bob Gabella, Villa Park, Illinois
A Hemerocallis seedling under evaluation

16. What have you learnt from your own garden?

Patience, which is virtue, and its practical companion timing, which is everything!   Failures of either can lead to mismanaged expectations and heartbreak – but the good thing is there’s always another season, to pick up the broken dreams and try it all again!

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