Everything I knew about gardening I learned...

was wrong from my Master Gardener Spouse!

Michael Hillman
Adams County Master Gardner Spouse

Probably one of the hardest things I've learned about being a Master Gardener from my Master Gardener wife is correcting common gardening misconceptions drilled into just about all non-gardeners over our lifetimes.

Growing up in suburbia, I learned quickly that affluence was measured by the amount of lawn one had and how short it was manicured. I learned that everyone stopped in front of the gardens full of newly planted annuals, which gave immediate gratification, and no one stopped in front of the homes with perennials. I learned that if you wanted shade around your house, you picked the fasted growing trees. I learned that gardens were supposed to be sterile, and if you wanted to get rid of bugs, pesticide in large doses was the answer.

When I first meet my Master Gardener wife the mention of terms like Native Plants, Integrated Plant Management, Beneficial Insects, and Xeroscaping would have drawn a blank stare. Organic gardening was something people with long hair who had dropped out of society did, not respectful homeowners. A wildflower meadow was something you saw while driving through the countryside, not something you would consider for your front yard. Warnings about invasive species sounded like a sci-fi movie plot. And telling someone that the long grass in your yard was ornamental would have brought wise cracks about one being too lazy to mow, and lets not even mention the response you would have received had you had the courage to tell them you were growing native weed!

Thankfully, gardening techniques and gardeners have come a long way since then. But the real payoff for our environment will come when non-gardeners homeowners and weekend warrior gardeners start to emulate Master Gardeners.

Winter is a time most Master Gardeners sit back and enjoy the time off from their garden and my wife is no exception. Even so, every day we contribute to her garden. On our kitchen counter top is a decorative plastic bucket labeled appropriately 'compost'. In it my wife throws just about everything biodegradable, things I grew up throwing away to be carted off to a landfill. Used coffee grounds, tea bags, uneaten vegetable, and trimming from the lucky garden plants than get to come in for the winter all end up in the compost bucket. Once full, it's emptied into one of three compost bins.

In the spring she puts me to work turning and sifting through them. Every year I'm awed at the deep dark richness I uncover at the bottom of each bin, and every year her plants reward her by giving blooms on un-imagined splendor that store bought compost can't even begin even touch.

While I was aware of birds in my mother's gardens, I never gave them more then a passing thought. For my wife, birds are integral part her Integrated Pest Management Plans. Bagworms, Webworms, and Japanese Beatles make tasty meals for the birds that call her garden home. The more winged allies she can attract to her garden, the freer her garden is of these pests, and the lusher and richer her plants look.

As a kid I learned that once a flower or plant was dead, it was removed promptly from the garden least it should detract from a garden's 'health' appearance. However, I've since learned that when the fall native foliage is spent, the dead flowers and the seeds they contain should be left for the birds to pick and feast on! In my wife's garden deadheading is a spring chose, not fall. The Native birds protect the native plants from predatory insects spring, summer and fall, and in return, the seeds of the native plants feed the native birds in the later fall and early winter ... Mother Nature at her very best.

But winter is a hard time for her winged garden allies. Many of the native plants they depend upon for winter forage are fighting for their very survival from an onslaught of invasive non-native plants. To help her birds survive the winter, once the seed heads of the native plants are spent, bird feeders of every shape and size to support the dietary needs and feeding behaviors of local native birds sprout up all around the garden.

Thistle feeders for the Goldfinches; suet feeders for the Woodpeckers; Black Oil Sunflower feeders for Fiches, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Cardinals; and whole peanuts feeders for the Blue Jays, Nuthatches and Chickadees. Two feeders are always filled with everyone's favorite mixture of Black Oil Sunflower, Millet, Milo, fruit and berries, peanut hearts, and safflower.

Winter is my most favorite time to be in my wife's gardens - as it is my wife's. I guess the way she looks at it - the worst I can do is overfill the feeders, which is a lot more forgivable then pulling out a prize plant while trying to help weed!

I'll be the first to admit I couldn't get a plant to grow if my life depended upon it, but as I fill the feeders surrounded by happy chirping birds, I feel like I'm doing my part to help her garden, and all that it supports, prosper. And while I fill the feeders I'm reminded of an old English poem by Alfred Crowquill called 'Scatter out the Crumbs':

Amidst the freezing sleet and snow,
The timid robin comes;
In pity drive him not away,
But scatter out your crumbs.

And leave your door upon the latch
For whosoever comes;
The poorer they, more welcome give,
And scatter out your crumbs.

All have to spare, none are too poor,
When want with winter comes;
The loaf is never all your own,
Then scatter out the crumbs.

Soon winter falls upon your life,
The day of reckoning comes:
Against your sins, by high decree,
Are weighed those scattered crumbs.

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