Master Gardener Henry Homeyer Explains Why Gardening Is Important
Gardening is about more than growing pretty flowers and tomatoes – it’s about connection to community and the land
I’ve been messing around with plants and seeds — and getting wet and dirty — for more than 70 years. I learned a lot from my mother’s dad, who I called Grampy. He was a fabulous gardener and we spent a lot of time together as I grew up.
One of my earliest memories — I was probably 2 or 3 — is in the garden with Grampy. He was weeding his asparagus bed, and I was hanging out with him, looking at creepy-crawly things — earthworms and beetles, I suppose. Suddenly, thunderheads appeared, but we were quite a distance from the house and barn. Grampy scooped me up and plunked me down on a pile of weeds in his old wooden wheelbarrow. He raced back to the house pushing his wheelbarrow, arriving just before the rain. What fun that was.
Grampy came from the old country, Germany, in the early 1900s. He was a tailor by trade, but a farmer at heart. After his wife died when I was 7, I would take a train from New Haven, Connecticut, to Worcester, Massachusetts — by myself — to visit with him. Sometimes I stayed a week, sometimes a month, and I did so every year until he died on my 21st birthday in 1967.
Grampy taught me about gardening by example, not lectures. He gardened and I watched — or helped. One of my first tasks was to stand on a wooden apple crate with a long stick and stir up a wooden barrel full of water and hen manure. Then I was allowed to dip a little metal can that concentrated frozen orange juice came in back then, and to give each tomato plant one serving of manure tea. Stinky? You bet. Great fun for an 8-year-old.
Grampy never asked me to weed.
Grampy’s kitchen table usually had a stack of magazines on it, including a little one called “Organic Gardening and Farming.” It was printed on newsprint and had no color pictures, but Grampy loved the articles. Later the magazine name was shortened to “Organic Gardening,” and it still is being published by Rodale Books — though now it has bigger pages, and has lots of color photos. He used it as his guide to better gardening, and I have too.
In 1970, as a young schoolteacher, I bought a drafty old wooden building that had been a butter factory in Cornish Flat, The Cornish Creamery. It had no gardens — except for a few common orange daylilies along the front of the house. At first, I was just a vegetable gardener, growing lettuce and tomatoes.
Later, when I came back from the Peace Corps in 1982, I started planting flowers. I dug up a peony that my mom grew in Connecticut that had been my grandmother’s — before she passed away in 1953 — and brought a piece of it to Cornish Flat where it bloomed magnificently. I was hooked.
I decided to take the UNH Master Gardener program and learned a lot. I’d recommend that 10-week course to anyone who wants to learn every aspect of gardening, from flowers and lawns to trees and disease control. Of course, being a Master Gardener meant that I had to volunteer to help others in my community, which I continue to enjoy all these years later.
I started writing a gardening column for my hometown paper, the Valley News, in 1998. I realized that I knew little about trees and shrubs, so I took a course on them at the Vermont Technical College in Randolph, Vermont. We went on plant walks every week to learn ornamental trees and shrubs on the campus and at Dartmouth College.
At that time, I was also introduced to the books of Michael Dirr, who I consider the premier “woodies” expert in America. His 1,200-page tome, “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Propagation and Uses,” is my bible. I’ve also been fortunate enough to get to know him and take several plant walks with him, learning more every time. All his books are not only instructive but also amusing — he is very opinionated. By now I have over 80 different kinds of trees and shrubs planted around my house.
So at age 75, why do I still garden? It’s in my blood, I guess. Starting young helped, I’m sure. But I do love the sheer beauty of Siberian iris and Japanese primroses and the excitement of seeing the first snowdrops opening in March. I love the fragrance of my grandmother’s Festiva Maxima peony. I love the friends I make through the writing a gardening column and from giving lectures to garden clubs and libraries.
Do I have any advice for new gardeners? Sure, lots. First and foremost, gardening should be fun. That means never work until your back hurts (or not very much). Garden with your loved ones, especially children. Eat what you grow, grow what you love to eat. You don’t have to grow eggplants if you don’t really like them. Thin your carrots and eat them standing in the garden.
What else? Take time to look at butterflies, smell the flowers. Rejoice when your young apple tree produces its first fruit. Plant bulbs every fall, even more than you can really afford. If you have goutweed or Japanese knotweed, consider selling the house! Anything else can be managed. Share your tomatoes — not just your zucchinis — with others. Put cut flowers in an elegant vase on the table every week from March to November.
I believe gardening will keep me going until I’m 100. After all, I do so want to see what comes back after a hard winter, and blooms again.
Henry Homeyer lives and gardens in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire, in a house he bought in 1970. He is the author of four gardening books and writes a weekly gardening column for a dozen newspapers around New England. His website is gardening-guy.com.