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Will Geer Gears Garden To Style of Elizabethans

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Will Geer Gears Garden To Style Of Elizabethans

By Pat Roessle

(News Garden Editor)

The tall, Buffalo Bill-resembling man puttering in the Michigan League courtyard isn’t the hired caretaker.

Camouflaged by a battered hat, it’s Will Geer, and if he wasn’t booked up with nearly a year’s theatrical appearances, he would probably take root there.

The current star of the APA Repertory Company’s “We, Comrades Three” is as well known to Ann Arbor gardeners as playgoers, especially since his instigation of the “Shakespeare garden” on the league grounds three years ago on the playwriter’s 400th anniversary.

“Will suggested it because of the focal point of the apricot tree,” explained Mrs. Merle Dixon, chairman of the garden. “After Mrs. Wilma Stekete, manager of the League, gave us permission to use the land there, he helped us (the Ann Arbor Garden Club) order seeds from England.”

"There used to be just conventional begonias and petunias here,” Geer said, pointing out some of the various herbs and their quoted references to Shakespeare’s plays. “That’s poison aconite growing over by the cafeteria.”

“The apricot tree itself has an interesting history,” he continued. “It evidently grew from a discarded apricot pit around the early 1900’s. Marjory Drake, whose family owned the property, recognized it as more than a weed and grafted it.”

“Students from California come to look at it when they get homesick," he said.

Will Geer is sort of the Johnny Appleseed of Shakespeare Gardens. Ann Arbor is not the first town to be influenced by his interest in the 1,000 herbs and plants referred to in Shakespeare’s plays.

His interest in gardening was sparked by a first prize he won when he was eight years old, and recharged when he taught vegetable gardening to farmers for the Department of Agriculture during the World War I. The men were interested in practical produce, but he was able to influence their wives in the use of herbs. Climactic difference in his two homes in Connecticut and California allow him to plant soybeans up North in the spring and keep up an experimental garden on the west coast.

“It’s planted as the Elizabethan gardens,” he said, “with flower sweet peas and vegetable sweet peas growing side by side.” An organic gardener (using natural fertilizers), he also grows Japanese vegetables and has conducted crossing experiments with tomatoes, peppers and egg plants.

Geer has a book ready for publication, called “Shakespeare’s Garden.” He keeps a notebook with him to record acquaintances each day with new plants and people. He said he is running out of new plants, but not people.

He named the city’s Shakespeare garden as one of seven great ones in the United States. The others are in Cleveland, San Francisco, San Marino Stratford, Conn., Cedar Rapids Iowa, and Evanston, Ill. Gardens at the University of Pennylvania and Vassar have “yielded to concrete.”

In his adopted Ann Arbor, Geer says the greatest places are the Botanical Gardens, the Arboretum and the Farmer’s Market. “One of my big ambitions,” the actor said, “is to have a stall in the Farmer’s Market.”

Actor Inspects Herbs

Will Geer brings not only acting but gardening experience to Ann Arbor. He transplanted three herbs from his home in California to the Shakespeare Garden in the League courtyard.

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