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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'MY FATHER'S GARDEN
Memories strengthen garden connections

by Carolyn Singer
January 17, 2009

My father gave me many gifts. Because this next week is the twenty-year anniversary of his death, I have been reflecting even more than I usually do about his wisdom, his deep connections with the natural world, and his love of gardening.

I remember going into the nursery closest to our home a few miles south of Sebastopol in Sonoma County. Just my father and me. The nursery was family-owned. It smelled good and felt good. The owners were always available to answer my father's questions. Today that nursery is still in the same family, managed by one of the sons who was a classmate of mine in the local high school.

We lived in a rural area where grasses and wild mustard could be tamed to grow vegetables in the deep, sandy soils. But left unattended, the landscape quickly reverted to the wild native plants my father loved. It's amazing how much bigger a mustard plant gets in an area that has had chicken manure added.

As much as I enjoyed the satisfaction of growing food, it was the wild garden that held the greatest adventure. My brother, sister, and I could make paths wherever we wanted on our three acres. Except, of course, in the vegetable garden. The grasses in the field grew so tall in the spring that it was easy to make hiding places.

We had a few fruit trees too. There was an old white peach right by the back porch, a perfect spot to hang out and enjoy that luscious fruit in season. Several old Gravenstein apple trees provided more than enough fruit for eating, pies, and canning. When these apples were ready my great aunt Jess would arrive with apples from her own trees, and she and my mother would enjoy a canning day. I'm not sure I helped much, but my memories of being part of this late summer activity are strong.

A 'Hachiya' persimmon tree that was at least fifteen feet tall grew about a hundred feet behind the house. When the luscious orange fruit hung on the branches in the fall, it always attracted attention. Strangers would knock on the door asking if they could have the fruit.

These old fruit trees were pruned by my father and brother with How to Prune by R. Sanford Martin guiding their efforts. Originally published in 1944, my father's copy was the 1950 printing. Happily, this gem is still in print, instructing today's gardeners in the art and skill of pruning. If readers are looking for an inexpensive and instructive pruning guide, this book is perfect.

My parents had only a few garden books. While the pruning book has changed very little since 1950, the other essential book in their library, "The Western Garden Book", has changed considerably in fifty years of "new" editions. It's fun to compare the latest 2007 edition with the first edition, described as the acknowledgment of "the first period of the coming of age of Western gardening." I think of my father's father who migrated from Holland as a young man, and in the late 1800s helped build the gardens at Stanford University to pay for his education. Gardening and education were both important to him too.

My father encouraged me to garden as a child, but it was never a chore. I delighted in puttering in my mother's flower garden, laying out the tidy rows for the vegetables, and even creating a few special garden areas of my own. When my father was away from home, teaching in Berkeley during the week, I would write letters to him, a chronicle of my garden efforts. I'm glad he saved those letters.

Garden connections are powerful. When my parents lived in Berkeley, my father chose his pediatrician by evaluating his garden. He had three he was considering, and with their home addresses he drove by to check out their gardens. Strong was his conviction that a doctor tending his garden in a nurturing manner would also deliver and care for children with the same gentle connection.

Last summer I met a woman whose father would not let her date a boy until the young man had joined the family in the garden and participated in the harvest. If he could shell lots of peas and enjoy doing it, the boy had passed the test.

Years after graduation from college I considered following a path that was different from the social work I had done for several years. Again it was my father who gently reinforced the interest I had in gardening, this time buying gardening and landscaping books to further my horticultural education. While he had been a math professor, he felt that teaching people about gardening was perhaps the best of all teaching because the students would always be eager to learn. He was right.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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