Columns, In the Garden

Reflections on 25 Years of Writing a Gardening Column

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My dogs have always appeared in the column. Here is Rowan who appeared with kale his first December.

by Henry Homeyer

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – On November 8, 1998, my first gardening column appeared in my hometown paper, The Valley News of West Lebanon, N.H. Since then I have written over 1,200 weekly columns and answered countless questions from readers. I am 77 years old, and plan to slow down a bit: I’ll be writing just one column per month this winter, and perhaps two a month after that. We’ll see.

 I’ve learned a lot during that time, interviewed plenty of interesting gardeners, and visited (and written about) great gardens in New England and further afield. Thank you, dear readers for sending me suggestions, asking questions, and generally keeping me on my toes.

Early on I wrote about digging in the dirt, and got an irate e-mail from a reader: “It’s not dirt,” she wrote. “It’s soil. It’s what makes a garden work well. Dirt is what you sweep up.”

Later, during an election campaign, another reader told me to shut up about politics and write about what I know, gardening. As I said, you have kept me in line all these years.

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Himalayan Blue poppy is a rare color in the garden. That of the sky.

My favorite interview was with Ray Magliozzi of Public Radio’s Car Talk. He lives in a suburb of Boston and has a simple but elegant garden of rhododendrons, roses, dahlias and a tropical called Datura or Angel’s Trumpet. He has the same quirky sense of humor and boisterous laugh in the garden that he had on the radio. I asked him if there was a common thread between gardening and working on cars. Quickly he answered with a full belly laugh: “Dirt. But garden dirt washes off more easily. The reason I love gardening is that I love getting my hands dirty. When we fix cars, it’s not all science. There’s an art to it, too.

Who else? The White House Gardener, Dale Haney. Tasha Tudor, the reclusive artist and gardener living in southern Vermont. Jean and Weston Cate, octogenarians who introduced me to the Seed Savers Exchange and the Boston Marrow Squash, a winter squash that they told me was the most popular squash grown in America in the 1850s, and still grown by them. And I interviewed and became friends with Sydney Eddison, a fabulous garden writer who, when I called her recently had just come in from re-building a stone wall, even though she is now in her 90s. Gardeners do seem to last a long time.

I love the letters and e-mails of you readers and wish I had saved them all. Here’s part of one that I got recently that might interest you: what to do about the dreaded Asian jumping worm?: “I sprinkled the tea seed meal (using my hand fertilizer spreader) and within a week (after a light rainfall which surely helped the process) the worms came to the surface (ick) and died. It would be lovely if they just stayed in the ground, but it was also gratifying to see that the tea seed meal actually worked! I have been told that they lay eggs this time of year so I will begin the process anew next spring.” She told me that she bought it at her local feed-and-grain store. My reader used 50 pounds for her lawn and gardens, about half an acre. The worms die in winter, and hatch in early summer, so I may try it as soon as I see them next summer. That said, I must warn you that even though this is a natural, organic product, it can have negative effects on fish and amphibians. Do your research, and I will, too. To be continued.

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I bought this Stewartia for its blossoms and only later found that its fall foliage is spectacular and worth writing about.

What else have I learned as part of my experience writing a column? Although I had been a gardener since I was a toddler and learned how to grow veggies and flowers from my Grampy, I took classes to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I went to Vermont Technical College in Randolph, Vt., and took classes including a great one about all the trees and shrubs that do well in our climatic zone. I already knew all the native trees that grow in Connecticut (where I grew up), but few shrubs and virtually no unusual decorative trees.

I took the Master Gardener course in New Hampshire, and that taught me lots of technical details about things like lawn care, insects and diseases, and lots more that I had never focused on. I drove 60 miles each way for 10 weeks to Concord, where I spent half a day taking classes. And I committed to helping teach others in my community, which I have been doing ever since. And it helped expand my knowledge for the column. I continue to take seminars given by experts whenever I can.

Writing a column also gave me a great excuse to buy plants. I needed to know, for example, if Toadlily or Himalayan blue poppy would do well here, and what they needed to succeed. I learned to buy perennials in groups of three or five to make a bold statement, or to try in various locations.

I needed to learn how to design a beautiful landscape with flowers, trees and shrubs. All that was part of my education. I now grow about 200 kinds of flowers, and nearly 100 kinds of trees and shrubs. I’ve written about the ones that thrived and the ones I’ve killed.

Eventually I learned not to buy plants unless I already have a place in mind where I might plant them. Okay, I fib a little there. I am a sucker for beautiful flowers in bloom, and will buy them and make a place for them somewhere!

What is my advice to you after all these years? Never get discouraged or give up. But also don’t bite off too much work. Start small and increase your gardens, one bed at a time. Stay true to using organic practices: chemicals disrupt the natural balance of nature. Make a long-term plan for your garden if you can. Establish sight lines, pathways, and create small “rooms” in the garden. Plant trees early on: they take the longest to reach maturity. And when you reach my age, those trees can be magnificent. I planted several in 1972 that please me every I think about them. Lastly, take time to sit down and enjoy your garden. You deserve to do so every day of the year.

I’d love to hear from you, dear reader. Is there an article that you remember best, or one you clipped and still refer to? I’m at [email protected] or PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Thanks!

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