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Thirty Years Between the Rows

How has your garden changed in 30 years?  How has your life changed in 30 years?

As a person who moved every two or three years (on average) for the first four sevenths of my life, I was stunned to realize that Henry and I have been in Heath for 30 years! And that means, that on May 22, today, I celebrate my 30th anniversary as garden columnist for The Recorder.

It was a happy day for me when Bob Dolan hired me to write a local garden column for the new Leisure tabloid section that The Recorder planned. The garden season was beginning and so was my first Heath garden.  My plan that first spring was to put in a huge vegetable garden. We got one of our new neighbors to come and plow up a big section. I don’t remember the measurements, but it was more than we were able to plant. Do you think I have learned to make my garden a manageable size?  Not really. Which means I sympathize with everyone who has big plans and little time.

Gardens inevitably change over time. Gardeners become more skilled. They develop new interests. They find new mentors. They meet other gardeners who give them plants they never dreamed of growing.

Guan Yin Mian tree peony

Sometimes travel changes the way a gardener approaches the garden. My first mentor was Elsa Bakalar with her British perennial borders. I accompanied her and a busload of enthusiastic gardeners on a tour of England gardens in 1983 and was entranced with perennials, and ‘garden rooms.’  I started my own perennial border. but realized that it takes special artistic skills (and time or hired labor) to have fantastic borders like those at the stately homes of Britain.

Queen Elizabeth grandiflora

Then Henry and I went to China where the gardens use a limited palette of plants, and very few of those at a time. In China the word for gardens, shan shui, means mountains and water.  And ‘mountains’ in the garden often take the form of stones.  When we returned from China, British borders began to look crowded and busy. My view of what was attractive was enlarged.

There are many climates, many landscapes, many types of gardens, many types of beauty, and each of us gets to discover our own preferences. Some know right away what kind of garden they want, and make up a master plan (with or without professional help) and proceed to implement that plan with little revision.

Others, like me, work on one project like The Rose Walk and then decide how to fit the next project in and around what already exists.  I’ve often thought that if I knew what I liked and knew what I was doing 30 years ago, my gardens would be very different.

I named this column Between the Rows because our neighbor in Maine, Mr. Leslie, who had a great garden (and a wooden gas lawn mower that he contrived), said he was always ready to stop between the rows and swap a few lies.  He knew that gardeners have as many tales as fishermen in their repertoire.

I hoped that this column would allow me to swap stories and information with other gardeners and talking to gardeners has been the main delight of this column I have seen beautiful and amazing gardens, small and large, and met the most fascinating, enthusiastic and knowledgeable people who are willing to share their knowledge – and their plants. Recently I have also been asked to take photographs to go along with my columns, so I’ve had a new learning curve.

Hoki tree peony on Bridge of Flowers

I’ve always known that gardeners are among the most generous of people, always happy to share a plant, or seeds, or a tip about how they do things. What has surprised me is how gardeners band together to provide service and beauty to their communities.  The Greenfield Garden Club supports educational horticultural projects in the schools, and beautiful plantings throughout the town. The Bridge of Flowers committee oversees the upkeep of the Bridge which gives so much pleasure to us locals who work or run errands in Shelburne Falls, but it also attracts over 34,000 tourists – and those are just the ones who sign the guest book.

Gardeners singly and in groups are aware of the economic pressures on many families, making monetary donations to the various food pantries in the county, but also by Planting a Row for the Hungry and donating extra produce to local organizations.

Greeenfield Farmers Market

Since my first passion was organic vegetables I have been so happy to see the growing appreciation for fresh local vegetables and fruits – and the concurrent rise of small farms, farm stands, farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture farms – CSAs.

As I’ve written about gardens and gardeners, I’ve learned about farms and farmers. I’ve learned about threats to our environment and the ways that we can all protect our precious soil, water and air.

People often ask me how I find something to say every week. I’ve learned that the more I write, the more gardeners, farmers, and issues I find to write about. I can only hope The Recorder will give me another 30 years to get through my list of people and topics.

Grandsons with good Heath Blueberries

Between the Rows  May 22, 2010

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