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If you are sixteen-year-old child-prodigy gardener Jonah Bradley on your day off, think polite reserve. Otherwise, just as you begin loading your cart with white petunias and nicotiana--and maybe the strange lime-green nicotiana known as "Starship," which you have been thinking about privately all winter--some old lady will come up to you and make a fuss. She will ask you how to keep the Jewel Mix nasturtium from wilting in the hanging basket on the hot patio in the apartment complex, and you will have to explain about the special hanging-basket fertilizer you've just read about, and furthermore, what she really has to do is water every day, without fail.
"You must," you will say, trying to sound stern, but as usual, you will be cursed with cuteness.
"But he's one of our favorite guys," says perennial-flower worker Ruthie Garriott, who, like sixteen-year-old Jonah, works in the City Floral Greenhouse at Colfax and Krameria Street. "Jonah's been here two and a half years. The owner wants to adopt him. There are teenagers around here, but not that many really care about plants. If I get a weird question and I can't find a manager, I just ask Jonah. He always knows."
"Are you working, Jonah?" another City Floral worker asks, "because I had a customer ask a question about the pink--"
"Shopping," Jonah says firmly. "For myself."
"And Jonah's not afraid to get dirty," Garriott continues. "Some people around here have no idea how dirty this work can be. Remember that guy we called 'Princess,' in his crisp shirt and nice slacks? He hated it. Jonah doesn't hate it."
"I like dirt," Jonah admits.
"Did I mention the owner wants to adopt him?"
"Okay, okay," Jonah says.
He makes a break for the Unusual Aisle. "This is where the not-really-popular things are," he says. "This--this is the lantana I want. It looks so cool, and it has a weird fragrance no one likes but me." The lantana smells crisp and antiseptic, like expensive shaving cream. "You know what annoys me about the Botanic Gardens?" Jonah whispers, after looking both ways. "Ladies and their perfume. There are better smells than that."
Nevertheless, Jonah works at the Denver Botanic Gardens each weekday as part of an internship that will get him to his eventual goal. Ever since coming to work at City Floral, he's planned to be a horticulturist. He says he wants to work as a manager at a small retail garden store. It's hard to get him to fantasize further--not that all the people who work with him aren't already doing it for him. Jonah could be a big-time landscape architect. A Martha Stewartesque arbiter of outdoor taste. That European garden design thing he likes--by the time he's out of college, that could be hip. But Jonah doesn't think about these things. For now, he's on a tight schedule.
"From 7:45 to 11:10 a.m., I go to high school at Manual," he says. "Then I have lunch at a fast-food restaurant with my friends. From 12 to 3 I work at the Botanic Gardens. Then I go to City Floral from 3 to 6 on Thursday and Friday afternoons and all day Saturday and Sunday. Then I come home, and my brother and I make dinner for our parents."
In his room at home are the mail-order plants he's nurturing. He permits himself to be excited about just two: Viola Freckles, a white violet with tiny blue dots, and a lilac that may turn out to be yellow, which would be cool. Across the street is a thirty-year-old neighbor named Gail, who understands Jonah's obsession. "I go over to her place and she shows me everything she's done in her garden," he says. "Then I show her my stuff. Then both of us go over to Shirley's, across the street, and we see a lot more stuff."
Nevertheless, most of Jonah's ideas come from himself. His first gardening moment occurred at age four. "I saw my twin brother eat a Shasta daisy and throw it up on the sidewalk a few minutes later," he recalls. "Of course, then I didn't know it was a Shasta daisy. Now I do."
His brother went on to the East High swim team; Jonah began to garden. Now he spends more than $300 each year on plants for his family's yard--giving in only occasionally to his mother's pleas. He'll give her a few geraniums, he decides, even though he thinks they're stupid. He will plant a few flowers that turn out green, however, even though she thinks they are disgusting and Martian-like.
Today, on his afternoon off, he will buy border plants, attempting an overall look that is "orangey-red." By the time he gets to the cash register, he will have selected sixteen different plant varieties to cover an area that is only sixteen feet long by eleven inches. An ornamental onion--"the coolest I've ever seen." Begonias, zinnias, celosia and monkey flowers. The order in which he will put them into the ground has been established--not on paper but in his head--for months. If he had more money, he'd buy perennials. Or make a water garden. Or create something formal and European, geometric and lined with brick and statuary.
"Everything in gardening now is wild, with clumps of things growing all over each other," he says. "I want a European garden, even though I've never seen one except in pictures. I'll go to CSU for college, probably, because of money. But I would love to see the Northeast or the Northwest. Plantwise, people tell me, it's just this total paradise. I don't know--I've seen Chicago. Does that count?