Dishing the Dirt in Zone IV

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THE GARDEN LIFE

I love to garden. But I didn’t always.

My father dragged all three of us out of bed on Saturdays and made us pick stones out of his flower beds down to the tiniest piece of gravel; pull blades of grass from between the prickly zucchini vines; weed the zinnia beds until we thought we’d faint from heat stroke (or so we feigned.)

When my husband and I bought Cedar Ridge Farm from Dad and Mom in 1995, we began renovating the centuries-old property by cutting back years of overgrowth and brush. Then I looked around me. What would I do about the pretty stuff that was supposed to go around the house–foundation beds, someone called them when they visited us and said we might consider some plants under our windows. Where does one even begin choosing scrubs and plants to skirt the house, no less figure out what grows in this clay-filled central New Jersey soil, anyway? I had NO idea. So we hired a husband and wife landscape team, and I followed them around like a puppy until I learned the difference between an annual plant and a perennial one, plants that thrive in sunlight, and those that love the shade. And most importantly, plants and scrubs the deer won’t eat.

Michael and I made endless trips to Home Depot for garden supplies in the farm’s rattley and rusted truck and continued to build a brush pile forty-feet high in our back field. Thanks to my father’s exposing me to gardening ( no matter how I hated it back then) and growing up outside both on the farm and in Connecticut with nature-loving parents, my hands, head, and heart quickly “remembered” what digging in the dirt was all about and I caught the bug in no time. Later, I joined the local chapter of the Garden Club and knew I found my niche.

My own gardening practice quickly became a passion for me …then it actually become a part of me. Like writing, I couldn’t live without a daily dose. We have thirty acres on the farm, three around the house, which include seven perennial beds-some shade, some sun- and I tend them all. The rest of the land is comprised of beautiful hayfields which we have recently given to New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation program.

To see the Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian Garden where my farm is documented for all to enjoy, click on the website here.

You can also listen to the transcript of an interview about Cedar Ridge Farm with Jennifer Jewell of the North State Public Radio’s garden podcast Cultivating Place. Placed first out of six of the most popular garden podcasts in the world, according to the February 2018 Issue of Gardens Illustrated 2018, Cultivating Place is one of the gems in my potting shed.

As chairperson for the Garden History and Design Committee at my garden club, documenting other gardens for the Archives is of prime importance. Below is a fun project I initiated this year and asked the members to participate in; one which I hope will also preserve and protect the story of their garden beginnings.

What’s your Garden History?

The Memoir Project: an introduction

To know yourself is to know the place that grounds you, the place you call home. For all of us who connect with our home-place through gardening in all of its many disciplines and pleasures—plantings, conservation, landscape architecture, photography, horticulture—our practice is how we define ourselves through years of accumulated history in a place that sustains us. It is where we spend our days and where we raise and gather our family, where we feel most safe and at peace. Standing on terrain we truly know and understand is how we build a sense of place and create a familiar foundation and footing. It is what defines us as nature lovers, as gardeners.

Christianity teaches us we are perennial beings. We live, we die, and we rise again. As stewards of the soil, we come to realize the concept of everlasting life through our planting practice. I am always delighted each spring to see the return of decades-old day lilies my great-grandmother enjoyed on our farm in the 1940’s; or the arrival of the Bearded-Iris—the dozen or so bulbs her mother entrusted to her, packed in a valise, when she left Coburg, Germany for Hoboken, New York.

The story of these perennials is a part of my garden history—a legacy where my roots have been allowed to spread wide and deep and long. It travels in time through my childhood canoeing in Canada with my parents and picking wild blueberries by the hatful; and into my teenage years helping my parents tend their rock gardens of pink Mountain Laurel and ground pine on the granite outcroppings that surround their property in southern Connecticut; it extends through forty years spent walking the moors of Nantucket, breathing in the scent of Rosa Rugose of the ocean breeze, gathering buckets of beach plums for jelly, tending my in-laws violet, pink, and blue hydrangea around their summer house.

My love of nature is persistent, and when I look back, I realize gardening is at the center of it all. It is what has grounded me all my life.

This year, the Garden History and Design Committee of The Somerset Hills Garden Club invites each member to give voice to the stories that make up your garden history. Through memoir, we will look back and write down what and where we fell in love with nature. 

Do you remember the first time you ran barefoot through the grass as a child? Probably not, but somehow your body remembers. It remembers your young carefree days of tag on the lawn, the smell of it freshly cut, its bright color in May. That distant memory started you on your long journey that created your unique garden history- one you will pass from generation to generation.