Gardening from scratch

When you grow up in an apartment, gardening isn’t on the top of your hobby list.

It never even occurred to me to buy a plant of any kind let alone dig in the dirt – until we bought our first house. As new parents, we had moved out of our last apartment in January and I never looked beyond the snowdrifts to see whether there was any landscaping around our new Cape Cod house in Connecticut. What did I know about daffodils and dogwoods? I was too excited about creating our first home. I was focused on “pretty on the inside.” Let the painting begin.

When spring popped that year I was pretty pleased with most of the emerging bushes and colorful evidence of flowers. Our driveway had a parking turn with a white bush-covered fence. When that bush morphed into hundreds of red, rambling roses, I was thrilled, but clueless. It wasn’t long before the dead roses looked messy among the constantly growing new ones . . . and I discovered the art of deadheading.

After the last of the snow disappeared, I realized that the hedges and bushes across the front had neat, geometrical shapes. What a bonus, I thought, admiring even more the previous owner who had planned her house so well.

By May, many bright green shoots were sprouting on those bushes but by June they looked positively scraggly. I became a needy customer at the local garden center, and being a babe in the woods, I needed everything – gloves, tools, plant food and most of all, I needed information. I spent a lot of time and money planting geraniums in the shade and impatiens in the sun before I got it right.

Like most things in my life, when I became enamored of a new subject, I hit the books. Slowly, it began to pay off. Some of my perennials even came up the second year and although the rabbits ate all the tulips, I conquered an army of snails. The thrill of victory.

Then I got cocky. I thought if I’d mastered Shasta daisies, how hard can vegetables be? Besides, I’m a homeowner, and that’s what homeowners do, right? So I set out to grow crops. I planted a row each of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and corn. Yup one row of each.

Half the tomatoes got eaten by bugs and the super-seedy cucumbers were crooked. The peppers were tasty but very small and the pumpkins were badly misshapen. The corn? Well, there was no corn. None of my neighbors grew vegetables, so it was a long time before I was informed that you need at least two rows of corn, preferably a lot more, to grow those yellow ears. It’s a boy/girl cross-pollinating thing I think… like needing male holly and female holly to have holly berries. I was clueless. My corn was well spaced, healthy, very tall, very green , and very barren. My beginner’s luck didn’t extend to vegetables — or overcome ignorance. The agony of defeat.

When I left that house at the beginning of our third summer, I dug up a hosta plant — an ordinary green one with white edges. I planted it at our next house in up-state New York, where I divided it each of the four years we lived there, eventually creating a lush row the length of the garage. When I moved to our first house in Warren I brought one of the hosta’s great-grandchildren with me.

It didn’t take many years of division for the backyard to sport a long raised bed thick with green and white stripes, a handsome background for pink flowers. Before I moved from that house, after 27 years, I’d gifted the hosta to many of the neighbors and shipped them off to friends in three states. This year I took five of their descendents to Annapolis to start my son’s vest pocket garden.

I’ve discovered that foolproof plants are the gardener’s best friends. Yes, every year I do try something new and a few exotics just for fun. In this way, new favorites get added to the old tried-and-trues… the half dozen plants that I can settle into a new garden home and practically forget about.

The shade garden now boasts 23 types of reliable hosta – from yellow to lime to dusky blue leaves. As they poke up their spear-shaped heads each spring, I can tell they’re just waiting to see which of them get divided and where they are headed to a new home.

And there’s an added bonus with these old buddies – I never need to plant them next to another hosta — just to get more hosta babies.

I’ve given up on the idea of edible crops – I stick to flowers and herbs although I’ve been known to toss nasturtiums into summer salads. I know my limits.

And corn? I’m within ten minutes of three places to buy it right off the stalk, still warm from the sun. I’ll stick to hosta, hyacinths and harebells and leave the Silver Queen to the experts.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)


Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today