By Barbara Mahany, Special to the Tribune
February 16, 2013
Maybe it's the tattoo of the flaming Felco pruners peeking out from under her T-shirt sleeve. Maybe it's the signature black-rimmed cat's-eye Ray-Bans. Maybe it's the bleach-bottle blond bangs.
Or the knock-'em-over red lipstick. Or the 5-inch-high platform sandals by which she traipses into the beds — the garden beds, that is.
But, baby, it takes no more than a blink to ascertain that Amanda Thomsen is not your ho-hum gardener.
Call her The Maverick, The Rebel, The Renegade, or just plain kooky.
Fact is, she's out to upturn the wheelbarrow. To tilt the watering can on its shady side. And to sow not a little imagination into gardens, far and wide.
"What's renegade about me is that I want people to express themselves. So many people are so intimidated by the outside. They don't know what makes them happy," says Thomsen, a self-proclaimed "punk-rock girl," who toils as a landscape designer by day and author by night.
Her iconoclastic, and drenchingly colorful, new book, "Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You" (Storey, $16.95), is her manifesto, her plea and promise that gardening should be one grand adventure. And, yes, you can still wow the neighbors.
The burning question — the one that apparently drove Thomsen to pen her prescriptive 159 pages — is why, in a world where we spend days tracking down just the right doohickey for the kitchen or bathroom, do we plant the white flag, wholly surrender our whims, when it comes to expressing our essence out there where the sun shines?
"It's all fear," declared Thomsen, chatting from the front seat of her pickup. "I say: Your yard is your yard. It's the ultimate playground. A lot of people think they need a permission slip" to do as they please out where the posies might bloom.
More than anything, Thomsen wants would-be gardeners to ditch the notion that there's an etched-in-dirt way to do things. Or that garden aesthetic is beyond anyone's reach.
In fact, this rock 'em, sock 'em master gardener lives and breathes to shake loose your inner outdoor artiste.
Her pep talk starts something like this: "You get up and get dressed every morning. Clearly, you've figured out how to do that. And you've picked just the right throw pillows for your couch."
She revs up to this, as she writes on Page 13: "Your landscaping is just as much an expression of your style as your rugs, curtains or Hello Kitty waffle iron are. Curb appeal is as important as your dining room chairs. Frighteningly, your yard is exposed to the world and leaves an impression on everyone who passes by, revealing who you are and what you think is cool."
So why in the world do you up and go blank once you're handed a trowel? Why flinch in the face of the pruners?
Imagine the possibilities, Thomsen practically bellows. Imagine the Maverick's Garden.
Here's what you might see if you happened by Thomsen's acre of land in Chicago's south suburbs:
She and her husband, Daniel, a fellow who's cuckoo for vintage Christmas kitsch, and their baby, Hazel, now 20 months, recently moved into a midcentury modern ranch with overgrown landscaping. Job one was ditching the god-awful red lava rock strewn with abandon. Job two was planting a 15-foot-by-120-foot border garden, in graduated colors, from green to purple.
But look a bit more closely, and things get really, er, interesting. There's a neon purple tattoo shack — yes, she explains, it's just like a giant lemonade stand, but it reads "Tattoo Stand" clear across the top. And, yes, it's planted amid the purples. Tucked farther along there's the not-so-little metal Stormtrooper, straight from Star Wars. And a screaming-pink squirrel bird bath.
"The trick," Thomsen says, "is to make the plants so beautiful it's not just a gallery of tacky objects. The beauty buffers the tacky."
And the really big point is to upholster your outdoors with all the charm and wonder you plant inside your cozy cottage.
"The hell with what the neighbors think!" just might be Thomsen's battle cry. "I'm an overmaximalist," she declares. "Life is too short to have anything boring."
Indeed, Thomsen imagines a world stripped of cookie-cutter gardens, where everyone on the block seems to have followed the same plant-by-number instructions.
"If everyone gets to express themselves, what a beautiful world it would be. And, besides, it's nice to give your mail lady something lovely to look at."
Does one or more of these apply? Deep down, you're a maverick gardener yearning to be free if:
•At least one accouterment in your yard was scavenged from a curb — someone else's, and you, lucky fool, happened by and heard it call your name.
•You don't believe in lawn. Corollary: Push mowers are only good for garden ornament, entwined, perhaps, with a four-pack of quick-rise morning glories.
•You do have a tiki bar planted in your back forty.
•Ditto a castaway mannequin. With or without limbs. Costumed or otherwise.
•Rust, the real deal, is one of your favorite colors.
•You count at least three gnomes or six pink plastic flamingos among your herd.
Maverick gardening 101
•Start a file of looks that catch your eye. Figure out what you love. Scour magazines, books, Pinterest (a website that serves as a virtual pin board).
•Lace up your walking shoes and amble the neighborhood. Thomsen calls this "landstalking" (and she's trademarked the term). Get out there and see what catches your eye. Bring a digital camera. She suggests pushing a baby carriage (with or without a baby) so you might pretend to take pix of the little darling when, in fact, you're snapping someone's drop-dead hydrangeas.
•Once you've got your wish list, head straight to your nearby garden store. "There are helping hands just waiting for you there. They've grown everything, and they're dying to tell you everything they know." Those friendly folk will help you whittle your list.
•Now, get real. Do you have what it takes to do this, or might you be wise to just hire someone? "There's no shame in this game," Thomsen says. "I applaud you for knowing that you're in over your head."
•Don't lose sight of end game: What you're after here is the much-loved garden, one where at any turn you stumble upon a trinket that puts a smile in your heart and a twinkle in your eye.
•And if the neighbors don't like it, plant vines. Or anything that tops the charts at 7-feet-and-heading-for-the-sky.