I learned how to be a gardener this season, but I also, more importantly, learned how to envision a simpler life. A life where I grew what I needed. A life that valued the power of good soil over the shine of a dime. A life that supported local farmer’s markets and not supermarkets. A life that sustained itself on vegetables and grains and not industrialized meat products. I could finally see that it could be done, that I could do it, and that it was about time.
I immediately had an overwhelming urge to relocate somewhere that allowed me to have my own garden. So I did. Here I am, three months later, living with my boyfriend in a little one-room cabin in the woods of Gilsum, NH with a plot of land for me to plant whatever I wish. We sold or gave away almost everything we owned from the old second-story apartment in downtown Keene (with the exception of our books, which we just couldn’t work up the guts to part with) and don’t miss any of it a bit. We needed to simplify, and then simplify some more.
As a gardener, I was given an opportunity to connect with my community and with my regional environment in a way that I never before had. The realization of it all, the abrupt collision of my current way of life with the one my eyes were opening up to, was momentous. I realized with an almost panic that I had to do things differently. I could see how unimaginative I had previously been, how much I had to learn and unlearn in order to live a better existence. My idealistic morals of the past had no reason to stay idealistic when I had the capacity to make them happen. I have since made steady strides towards a more imagined life, but still have a ways to go. There is so much I’m excited to learn and experience, there is so much room for my roots to grow into this bountiful soil. I am truly grateful for this past season for helping me gain this new enthusiasm for life and I look forward to all the gardening to come.
The school semester started back up again I remained working in the gardens, but with classes going I could only spend three days working in them rather than my regular five. I decided to inquire about the greenhouse on campus to see if there was anything I could help with on my campus days, and sure enough they were looking for someone to give it a little routine care. I started working in the greenhouse the first week of the semester and found it to be an absolutely wonderful offset to being away from the gardens. It was a totally new experience too, with all the tropical plants and trees that I’d never work with in any New England garden, but that thrived in the warm and humid atmosphere of the greenhouse.
There is a plaque on the window by the entrance that says:
Supported by Bruce and Jane Keough
In Honor of Leicester Faust.
It’s interesting because Cush mentioned that when she attended Keene State, she worked with Mr. Faust when he was the head of grounds keeping for the college. The greenhouse has a great collection of plants, including a huge variety of orchids, passionflowers, a coco tree, a lemon tree, banana trees, eucalyptus plant, cacti of all kinds, tropical ferns and many more green little gems. I loved getting out of class and going up to that steamy little paradise for the rest of the day to water the plants, clean up any dead leaves, re-pot things, and tromp around with my flip flops on and my pant-legs rolled up while it was 40 degrees outside. I was also responsible for caring for the plants along the hallways in the science center. It was always funny when someone walked by as I stood there draining a 3 gallon bottle of water into the giant pots and said something like “I always wondered how those things stayed alive.” It’s a tricky bit of work hauling around a push cart with water enough for all of those plants and trees, but I enjoyed it.
The greenhouse is primarily cared for by Katie Fetherston of the Biology Department, who does an amazing job keeping everything green and shiny and happy.
The Keene State web page for the greenhouse is http://academics.keene.edu/bio/Greenhouse.htm.
The greenhouse also has a very special amorphophallus konjac! For great photos see: (http://www.flickr.com/photos/8561740@N08/3731475522/in/set-72157621527809321)
One of our clients decided to convert his swimming pool into a formal garden this season. It was a large project, a lot of work, but awesome to see the transition and the final product. Everyone came together for this one. Kristian designed the whole layout with the fountain and the trellises, and Cush, Betty, Jean, and I planted and watered and mulched the days away. We got to work hand in hand with a lot of local craftsmen and women in the community (masons, sculptors, architects, etc.) The project came out very well and our client was extremely pleased.
…or, Thoughts On Nature.
It’s true that if you aren’t blissfully happy in the garden, you are usually (as Jamaica Kincaid so nicely puts it) “terribly vexed”. There always seems to be something that’s just not working quite to your liking. Or, some flower or plant that’s just decided to give up and fall dead without any known or reasonable explanation. It’s funny how distraught you can get over something so out of your control. I read somewhere that humans cultivate gardens in order to gain some semblance of control over nature, to exert our force onto the great unknown. I suppose this may be true, because we get all worked up when a piece of our “controlled nature” behaves other than we’d like (i.e., naturally out-of-control) and we dare to be upset with the plant for not conforming to our personal wishes. I dare to wonder if gardening is really a beneficial act. Maybe we should just let everything be and learn to appreciate the wild beauty of it all, learn to love the weeds as much as the flowers? Maybe we should go back to seeking and gathering rather than cultivating our food? Perhaps then we would learn to be comfortable with the natural order or chaos of things. Perhaps…
Naturally, I learned a lot about garden pests this season. Every day we encountered some sort of aphid or mealy bug or beetle eating away and sucking the nutrients out of our precious flowers. And the deer and slugs munching away at the hosta leaves until only little stubs were left. It’s hard to stay calm and remember that all those buggers need to eat and don’t know that they are wrecking your diligently kept garden as they fill their bellies. However, I am a firm believer that harmful pesticides won’t ever solve a problem without creating an even bigger, more serious one. So, it is useful to learn some practical, safe ways to deter garden pests.
Here are a few suggestions:
For aphids: Mix up a spray bottle of soapy water and give the plant a good bath
Find some lady bugs and place them on the plant (they eat the aphids right up!)
For mealy bugs: Spray leaves with cedar oil
Place banana peels near the plant so they will be enticed by the sweet snack
Pour your old coffee grinds around the base of the plant
For deer: Spray predator urine around the garden (cougar or fox scents)
Place a sculpture or cutout of a fox inside the garden
Tie pieces of soap to varying spots on your plants
For gophers: Sprinkle cayenne pepper around the base of your plants
Put some pinwheels around to scare them away
For beetles: When you see them, pull them off and place them in a jar of water
* And use Have-A-Heart traps if nothing else is working! If you don’t want to buy one, put an add up on Craigslist requesting to borrow someones for a while until you catch your culprit!
One of my first days on the job we did some weeding. It was a very large garden and it had a lot of weeds poking up, so we had our work cut out for us. I began feverishly pulling up every little green thing I could see, hoping to prove myself, be the quickest weeder they ever did see.
But my efforts were misguided and blind to the wonders of the early spring garden. I was reckless, careless, and impatient. First of all, you have to really take the time to work those roots out of the soil, you can’t just rip off the little green tops and think you’ve actually done anything (they have a great little tool to help with this, called a “weeder,” imagine!). Secondly, not everything that’s little and green is a weed. Cush asked me to come over to the end of the garden that she was working on to point out a particular little seedling that I must take care to look out for, because it would soon turn into a tall, bright-orange oriental poppy. I stared befuddled at the little two-leafed, half-inch-tall sprout and wondered how the hell she could tell that that one, among all the rest of the identical green things, was going to end up a poppy and not a weed. She carefully pointed out the leaf structure to me– the way the edges were a little more jagged than the others and the subtle feeling of fuzziness to the touch. I was amazed. A whole new world of details opened up to me. I decided right then that I didn’t want to use my gloves unless working with thorns. I wanted to feel everything, see everything, smell everything. I had so much to learn.
Now, I can identify poppy seedlings pretty quickly and it seems silly to think that I once could not. But on that spring day I probably yanked about 20 of them out of their precious places in the soil.
After then, I got better at noticing poppies and other flower seedlings, and I got better at weeding. A lot better, because we did a lot of it.
Boy oh boy, I never had any idea how much you could weed and weed and then still need to weed some more. My god, those things are persistent. You’d spend an eight hour day clearing out a giant patch of tangled green so that you could finally see the mulchy brown underneath and then come back two weeks later to the very same tangled mess that you seemingly already took care of. As a gardener, it’s a never ending process. There’s always some sneaky little thing twisting up around the stalk of a flower or peaking through the leaves of a bush or running along the ground to form a carpet of perfect, tactful, unrelenting domination over your garden. I have nightmares about vetch and Bishop’s weed. Terrible things. If you even leave a trace of one of their little white roots in the ground when yanking them out of the soil, they will come back full force with a great “ HAH!” just to spite you.
But then there is the other side to the whole ordeal. Sometimes those weeds are awful, but sometimes I find reason to think they aren’t so bad, times when they are actually pleasing to the eye. Especially things like clover, or violets (that pop up everywhere and will take over if you don’t control them) are just so pretty that I always bite my lip when pulling one up for the sake of gardening. Even, I dare say, vetch gets a nice delicate purple flower when in bloom and variegated bishop’s weed looks pretty nice in a big bunch (don’t tell anyone I said so, though). Sometimes, over the course of the season, I would come across a really cool plant with neat little flowers and question Cush as to what it was, to which she would examine it, pronounce it a weed, and say “pull it” with a nonchalant wave of condemnation. I brought a few home and potted them,feeling guilty that some book someplace had deemed such a pretty little thing a weed and thus it was so hastily pulled out and discarded. It’s funny how pretty things become ugly when they show up in places we didn’t ask them to, or how their amazing means of survival becomes a specific point of annoyance to us since we’d rather they survived elsewhere if not at all.
I think I became a plant scavenger. Sometimes I would take the pretty weeds, but always the plants or flowers that customers didn’t want anymore. It gives me a chance to practice growing all kinds of things, to see what I can do to cheer them up and make them flourish, to experiment with potting up different soil mixtures and adding fertilizers. It’s fun and it’s free when you take the rejects! I’ve even had some do so well that I’ve given them away to friends as small gifts and they were happily received.