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Things My Grandma Taught Me

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-Garden Rose, photo by Cathy Pouria

I intended this next blog post to be about planting tomatoes, peppers and onions (and we’ll get to that in the next post), but then we lost my grandmother last week. She was a talented gardener who inspired me in many ways, so I thought it only fitting to dedicate this post to just a few of the things she taught me during her “great run” (as my husband puts it) of 90 years, both about life and gardening. 

About Caring-

My grandma had the greenest of green thumbs. Raised on a farm in Eastern Kentucky, there wasn’t a plant that she couldn’t grow, and during the weeks I spent with her during the summers of my childhood I watched as she cared for her plants and tended her garden. Her caring nature extended beyond plants to all those around her, family, friends and neighbors. One summer when I was about 9 or 10 years old, every so often we would walk around the corner to a little house. I loved going there because there was an old barn and grounds to explore, but that’s not why we went. We went there so my grandma could care for a very elderly woman who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and was no longer able to leave her bed. Her family needed help with the round the clock care she required, and so off we went. I don’t remember what, if anything my grandma explained to me beforehand or after, but I do remember her actions while we were there. The woman called my grandma “Ada”, and although that was not her name, she went along with it. “I’m here.” she’d say cheerfully, and “I have your bananas and milk” as she fed her with a spoon. A child, I played outside, wandering in and out of the house and noticing how my grandma talked to and treated the woman with respect and dignity as she fed her, changed her diaper, and sat with her. She did all of this out of the goodness of her heart, because her neighbors needed help and because caring for others came as naturally as breathing air to her. The memories of our time in that house have stuck with me vividly for my entire life and became especially poignant in later years as my grandma’s own dementia began to worsen. I knew how to treat her, and others, and how to approach it with my own children because she taught me all those years ago. She taught me that we can preach caring and kindness to our children until we are blue in the face, but the most important thing we can do is to show them. 

About Reaching Out-

Maybe it was her Appalachian nature, but my grandma had a way of reaching out to people, literally and figuratively. She’d reach her hand out to someone, then hold their hand and say things like “Oh it’s so nice to see you again!” in her sweet southern accent. About 13 years ago we were all sitting in a shared hospital room, visiting my mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. There was a woman lying in the other bed, and I kept my distance, figuring that the woman wouldn’t want to be disturbed by a stranger. My grandma, however, peered around the curtain. “How are you feeling today, Janine?”, she asked. Sometime over the course of our visits, my grandma had learned her name, and all about her family, illness and what led her to this particular doctor and hospital. Just as plants need tending, so do people. And if there was a person in my grandma’s vicinity that needed tending, she fearlessly reached out. Whether it was a phone call, an encouraging word, driving her elderly neighbor to the grocery store every week, (another childhood memory which I wrote a little story about for Capper’s Farmer magazine), fixing lunch for people in her local soup kitchen, or stopping by for a visit. As far as she was concerned, reaching out was the right thing to do.    

About Accepting What Is-

After my mother died, my grandma and I were calling each other just about every day to check in. During one of our chats, she said to me calmly “Well, this is just the way it has to be now.” It was so simple. It wasn’t easy, but there are some situations that are what they are. There was nothing we could do about it, and nothing that could change it. It just was, and it’s a saying that has given me strength through several difficult situations. 

About True Strength-

I never could confuse my grandma’s kindness and compassion with weakness, because while she was those things, she was also a very strong woman. As my aunt put it “No one ever told that woman what to do-ever.” She was opinionated, she was feisty, and she stood up for herself and others. She valued leadership. That being said, not once in my life did I ever hear her call someone a name or disparage someone because of what they looked like or their material possessions. She taught me that a woman doesn’t need to tear someone else down in order to get her point across. 

About Gardening-

Now that you’ve read through my sentimental reminiscing, and since this is a garden blog after all, I’ll share just a couple of things she taught me about gardening. Aside from a fondness for roses, she taught me that the best thing to do with yellow squash is to slice it, batter and fry it up in an iron skillet, and that the best thing to do with a freshly picked sun-warmed tomato is to put it on white bread with mayonnaise and a side of salted garden cucumbers. 

I’m sure that my grandma was not a perfect person, just as I’m not, because there are no perfect people. I do know though, that her tiny corner of the world was made just a little bit better because she lived in it.  I hope you enjoyed reading these “family heirlooms” of mine.

Preparing and Planting

We’re heading towards the end of May, well past the frost date in New Jersey. It’s finally feeling like summer around here, and our long Winter that stretched into Spring seems to be behind us. That means it’s time to plant summer flowers and vegetables! I did manage to get some spinach and kale in but missed out on planting any other Spring greens. No worries though, the seeds will just be put aside for the Fall garden! 

Before planting, we had to prepare the beds, which involves removing any excess old debris and turning the soil over. In my first blog post I mentioned that my garden isn’t perfect….well, I didn’t get out to tend to my beds as soon as I would have liked. One of them wound up looking like this:

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Eek!

I took drastic measures, which for me meant using an organic commercial weed and grass killer (twice!), then tilling. My husband doesn’t have much of an interest in gardening, but he knows it makes me happy so he does things like put on a floppy farmer’s hat and spend an afternoon tilling my garden beds for me. He’s good like that! Afterwards we had 3 turned-over vegetable beds and a spot next to the wildflower patch for the milkweed seeds.

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Milkweed will go here next to the growing wildflowers!

 In half of the first bed my daughter and her friend planted 3 rows of spinach, 1 row of chard, and some yellow squash seeds which were directly sown into the ground. I mulched between the rows using straw from our local grain and feed store. Since I forgot all about plant markers, the girls decorated some wooden stakes that I found in the garage and we used those instead. 

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Unfortunately, the next day our golden retriever, lured by the prospect of frolicking in fresh straw, busted through the garden fence, jumped around the bed, dug, rolled around and tossed the straw into the air.  So, we’ll keep our fingers crossed for the spinach!

The rest of my garden will be planted with a mix of seeds that can be directly sowed into the ground, and plants that I purchased. It’s easy to get carried away at the nursery, so I usually try to write out a simple plan of which plants will go in each garden section before shopping. It’s also a good idea to keep companion planting in mind. For instance, I like to plant marigolds, peppers and onions with my tomatoes and nasturtium and radishes with my squash. 

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Seeds and plants, ready to go!

As the weather warms, the pollinators are returning and the birds have been busy pairing off and building nests!

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Mama Bluebird sitting on the grape arbor, and the male bluebird keeping watch from the garden fence.  

Just the same as it happened the prior few Spring and Summer seasons, Bluebirds claimed one nesting box, and Tree Swallows claimed the other.  We’ve been keeping an eye on the nests!

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Bluebird nest and eggs on the left, Tree Swallow nest and eggs on the right.

Just today, a few of the eggs hatched! Welcome to the world baby bluebirds!

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Can you spot the babies?

My next couple of posts will include what I’ve planted my vegetable and herb gardens so far, companion planting, and planting milkweed seeds along with native flowers. Happy gardening!

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Waiting for Spring Weather

It’s been a cold start to April here in New Jersey. We had another snowstorm the morning after Easter, and my peas, spinach, lettuce and beets have yet to be planted! In the meantime, I ordered some milkweed seeds with the intent of planting them outside for the Monarchs. On the advice of my dad who’s been planting milkweed for the past few years, I decided to try out cold-stratifying them first. Cold-stratification attempts to mimic the condition of the seeds being outside during the chilly winter months and can help with germination and breaking them out of dormancy. I ordered two types of milkweed seeds, A. Tuberosa (commonly known as Butterfly Weed) and Ascepias Incarnata (otherwise known as Swamp Milkweed). Both species have colorful blossoms, and most importantly are a food source for Monarch Caterpillars. They’re also native to the Northeastern United States, as well as many other areas of the country according to the USDA Plants Database.

Perfect!

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I used coffee filters to wrap the seeds in. While many people use plastic sandwich bags to store the wrapped seeds, I decided to see how some clean little 4 oz jam jars leftover from canning would work instead. I ran the coffee filters under cool water…

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…..then squeezed out the excess until they were just damp. 

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I laid the dampened coffee filters out in front of the labeled jars and spread a packet of seeds out in each one. 

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Then I folded them up, careful to make sure that all the seeds were covered and tucked inside. 

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After that, into the fridge they went! They’ll literally chill out in there until the average last-frost date has passed. That’s May 2nd for our location in New Jersey according to the The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Afterwards the plan is to direct-sow them right into the ground. The Butterfly Weed will go next to the wildflower patch, and the Swamp Milkweed will go into an area of our yard that tends to be wetter. We’ll see how they grow!

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Even though winter seems to have had trouble letting go around here, there still are some signs that we are beyond the Spring Equinox. The days are longer, and the Bluebirds have been flitting around the yard, assumedly a little confused by the late snow and as ready as we are for winter to loosen its grip.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that the Bluebirds have stuck around here, occasionally making an appearance flying together in a flock of six or so. When Spring arrives, they become more visible and active in the yard as they begin to build their nests and pair off. Somewhere over the years I read that these little songbirds like to nest overlooking fields facing the East. That’s exactly where we placed our nesting boxes, and consistently have Bluebirds families each year, along with tree swallows. 

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 Looking forward to planting season and hoping that the mild weather forecasted for the end of this week comes to fruition! The next post or two will hopefully include the start of some garden greens and maybe the beginnings of a Bluebird family! Happy Spring!

Welcome to My (Frozen) Garden!

Cathy PouriaIt’s January and here in the Northeast, we recently had a “bomb cyclone” blow through, bringing with it frigid wind and snow that first blanketed, then froze on the ground. Winter is the time when I love to hibernate and envision what my garden will look like come Spring. Flipping through gardening magazines and seed catalogs by the fire, thinking about what worked last year (and what didn’t) and planning which vegetables, flowers and herbs will be planted into which bed are all part of my mid-winter gardening vision! As gardeners, we can look at a piece of snow covered ground, appreciating the beauty of the moment, but at the same time picturing it’s future blossoming.

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It may look like this for now (above)….but I’m picturing this (below)!

This coming Spring will be the start of my sixth year of backyard gardening. We started the garden the summer after we moved into our first house on ½ acre of land in a rural country town in New Jersey. Did you know that New Jersey has “country”? It’s beautiful, scenic and full of rolling hills and small farms! With the help of my husband and children, the garden has grown from a small bed of vegetables to 4 in-ground beds of a kitchen garden filled with vegetables as well as annual and perennial flowers. Among the perennials are irises gifted from my aunt, and a rose-of-sharon which came from land that was once my great-grandmother’s farm in Kentucky. We dotted our yard with peach, cherry and apple trees, and planted an herb garden which grows next to the patio off of my kitchen. At the garden entrance sit a pair of decades-old concord grapevines, which came from my father. You can read more about them in "Family Heirlooms."

It’s a joy to treasure and care for these family heirlooms! However, it’s January, and the garden currently looks like this:

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The only “flower” in our garden right now is Sunflower, our golden retriever!

In the grey of winter is when we start to contemplate. Should I add calendula to the herb garden? Expand the wildflower patch? Enlarge the fence so the dog won’t trample the flowers like she did last year? Start milkweed seeds? Build a greenhouse? As hobby gardeners, we have the privilege of being able to experiment with our gardens, and to change it year to year based on what has proven to work and our personal preferences. Each year, I try to improve on the garden in some way. For example, a cover crop of oats was planted for the first-time last fall in an attempt to enhance the soil and cut down on weeds (a never-ending battle!).

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The oats are in there somewhere!

These past couple of years, my goal has been to discontinue the use of sprays, even organic ones in order to avoid harming the beneficial insects, birds and pollinators that visit the garden. Companion plants have been slowly added season by season, like marigolds, nasturtium, lavender, roses, carnations, lilies and coneflower. Butterfly and mason bee habitats were hung. Bluebird houses were put up. I started noticing monarch butterflies fluttering on the deep magenta blooms of coneflower, and decided that native milkweed should be planted this year for their caterpillars to feed on.

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These little guys need all the help they can get!

As time moves farther from the winter solstice, that last sliver of pink as the sun reaches below the horizon comes a little later each evening. The days get longer and we wait patiently for the ground to unthaw to get those first Spring greens planted. A new season of gardening along with it’s trials and errors will begin. I’m not an expert and my garden is far from perfect, but I am gardening and learning as I go! I hope you’ll enjoy learning along with me!

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