Here’s a collection of our customers’ GARDEN MEMORIES from our email Gazette and past catalogs, starting with the most recently published. For other topics, please see our main Newsletter Archives page.
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Who got you started gardening? Do you remember your first radishes, or dahlias? And is there a garden in your past that still calls to you with special power? Well, tell us about it!
In case you haven’t noticed, here at Old House Gardens we treasure our gardening heritage, and for us that includes a lot more than 400-year-old tulips and famous gardens like Longwood. We’d like to record and pass on some of the history and heritage in the backyards of America, the gardens of everyday people.
So email us one of your favorite garden memories, be that of a person, plant, place, tool, ornament, technique, or simply one magic moment, and we’ll do our best to publish as many stories as space allows right here in future issues of the Gazette.
“I am hoping that ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’ is the dahlia that my papaw and mamaw grew for many years,” Roger Flatford wrote us when he ordered last spring. I hoped so, too, but I knew that was a very long shot. Tens of thousands of dahlias have been introduced, many look a lot alike, and very few have been preserved. But in late summer we got a happy surprise:
“I can’t say thank you enough for ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’ dahlia!” Roger wrote. “This dahlia grew at my mamaw and papaw’s house in [zone-7a] Heiskell, Tennessee, coming back for them for 30 or 40 years, even through some hard winters. I’m 52 and I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. Every summer it would reward us with the most beautiful lavender blooms. We never knew its name but we always loved to see it bloom.
“My papaw kept a beautiful yard, and I inherited the flower gene from him. After he died in 1980 I tried to keep his flowers growing for my mamaw. Over the years, though, most all were lost except for the lavender dahlia and two old peonies and a little iris that just kept multiplying. Then one year the dahlia didn’t come back. I was really sad to see it gone.
“A few years later my mamaw passed away at 93. That summer I spent a lot of time at the little white house on the hill, remembering how much fun we had visiting there when I was a kid. Then I started looking everywhere I could think of, hoping to find the lavender dahlia. I bought several that looked right, but when they bloomed they were never the one.
“This past spring I saw two dahlias at your website that I thought maybe, just maybe were it, so I purchased them both. A couple of weeks ago I went out to the garden and there it was, Papaw’s Lavender Dahlia. What a reward! I know Mamaw and Papaw are smiling down from heaven.
“Next spring, I’m going to plant another one at the little white house on the hill in memory of my mamaw and papaw, Goldie and Roma Graham. Thank you, Old House Gardens, for finding and preserving the beautiful ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’.”
You’re welcome, Roger! Interestingly enough, that unusually hardy dahlia came to us from Joyce Dowell who got it from her grandmother in Scottsville, Kentucky – which, as the crow flies, is just 100 miles away from where your grandparents lived. (Feb. 2015)
Sometimes the best thing about an heirloom plant isn’t its beauty or vigor or fragrance but the memories it evokes, as Mary Mattison of Sandy Springs, Georgia, reminded us recently: “My great aunt in Charleston, South Carolina, had a small garden in her backyard on Queen Street where she had lived since the 1870s. In the borders was a mass of spider lilies that held my attention as a young girl. Over the years I have inquired at numerous nurseries in Atlanta about spider lilies, only to be given a quizzical look. I thought perhaps my memory wasn’t serving me well as to the name, until I read an article in Southern Living this fall which led me to your website. Thank you!” (Oct. 2012)
Our good customer Frances Rogers of Bedford, Texas, writes:
“When I was a young mother, my mother and I would often take my baby daughter for a drive, and there was one place in the spring that my mother showed me where there was a whole field of beautiful yellow jonquils, a truly awesome sight. The field was owned by the elderly lady, Mrs. Austin, who lived next door to it in an elderly house. I wanted very much to have some of those flowers, so we stopped and introduced ourselves and asked if she would sell some of the bulbs. This was way back before I became the fanatic gardener I am today.
“Well, first Mrs. Austin said to come back at a particular date, and then she changed her mind, and it took about two years for her to settle on the date when we could come to get the bulbs. By that time, we now had a baby son as well as a toddler. My poor long-suffering husband was going to school part time and working full time, but nevertheless on the appointed day he took me to see Mrs. Austin and get the bulbs.
“We had a very limited budget and I knew I could only buy a few. Well, it turned out that the man who usually dug Mrs. Austin’s bulbs had not shown up, so my dear husband, on a hot Texas June day, not only dug almost a whole row of bulbs, but also had the honor of buying some for me, a dollar’s worth, at 5 cents a bulb!
“Of course, those bulbs thrived and bloomed. They went with us to the country home we moved to and lived at for over twenty-eight years, they multiplied amazingly, and some went to friends and neighbors. I always called them Mrs. Austin’s jonquils. When we moved from our old home place, I made sure that some of the bulbs were securely growing at my daughter’s home, then brought them to our retirement home.
“Eventually I bought some Campernelles, and guess what! THEY are Mrs. Austin’s jonquils! So we have the ‘new’ Campernelles, but we also have a cherished group of the original Mrs. Austin’s. And I have to say that Mrs. Austin, with all her interesting ways, made it possible for me to spend every winter waiting for emerging bulb shoots, and every spring not only enjoying these wonderful bulbs, but also the memory of the little old lady who started my enthusiasm, which has now grown all out of bounds. Thank goodness.
“P.S. My husband is still digging for me! He’s really a nice man.” (Jul. 2008)
Our good customer Rita Rzeszutko of Orland Park, Illinois, writes:
“When I was a little girl, I loved my grandmother’s Chicago garden. She really had a green thumb and tried to save as many seeds as she could. One plant that she never collected seeds from was the pretty little balsam plant, the annual with the green pods that pop when the seeds are ready. The reason was my brother and I would pop them before my grandmother could get to them. It was great fun for us, and guess what? The plants still re-bloomed every year because even though we didn’t realize it we were actually helping the planting process!” (July 2007)
Cheri Schraidt of Catawba Island, Ohio, writes:
“When I was a child I loved hollyhocks! Every summer we would visit my grandparents in Illinois. They had solid hollyhocks along the garage and alley. My grandmother would send us out to pick baskets full and sort them by color. Then we would make dolls like she and her grandmother had made. They were beautiful, and we’d line them up on the picnic table.
“You use a heavy needle and thread. The skirt is a fully opened flower (upside down), the head is a seed pod, and the arms are unopened buds. You can use layers of flowers to make a skirt of many colors and a smaller flower for a hat. I have taught my three girls how to make them now. They are very neat!” (June 2007)
Our good customer Steven Conn of Westmont, New Jersey, writes:
“When I was very young, I remember the day I realized it was truly spring was when my wonderful mom, who taught all of her children the joys of nature, would cut lilacs from our bushes in the backyard. She would make huge arrangements and place them in several spots in the house. The smell was amazing — like turkey on Thanksgiving or a fresh Christmas tree — and to this day, 40-some years later, I love the smell of lilacs and now grow them in my garden to remind me of those days, my mom, and how amazing nature can be!” (April 2007)
A crocus-filled Bulb Cake is a fun, easy way to get your kids or grandkids involved in the pleasures of gardening. Here’s all you need to know about planting one, from the creative mother who invented it, our good customer, Debra Anker of Fredericksburg, Virginia. She even sent us photos! Take a look at www.oldhousegardens.com//BulbCake. (March 2007)
Our good customer Sarah Martin of Saraland, Alabama, writes:
“When I was a little girl, my mom grew lots of flowers and I loved to roam through her roses, cleome, asters, oxalis and phlox searching for my favorite insect, the lady bug. I also loved catching bumble bees in a mayonnaise jar with holes punched in the lid. I released the critters after I had gazed at them for a while, amazed at how God could create things of such interest and beauty. I also remember brilliantly colored hummingbirds whirring around the garden and wanting so much to catch one of those, but I never did. They were way too fast for me.
“These are some of the sweetest memories of my childhood, and now when my granddaughters come for a visit, we go exploring among my flowers for lady bugs and bumblebees.” (Jan. 2007)
We were touched by this note from our good customer Clare Miller of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we thought you would be, too, especially in this season of sharing, joy, and family.
“Last year I ordered some bulbs for my 90-year-old aunt. We were very pleased with them and with your service. Some pheasant’s-eye narcissus were in the order. She was especially pleased with them, since they bloomed much later than her other bulbs and because they were so pretty. She died in May, right after they bloomed. I just wanted to let you know how much she enjoyed them and how much they will always remind me of her and her love of gardening.” (Dec. 2006)
Our good customer Ruth Pullen of the fabulous Whaley House Museum in Flint, Michigan, writes:
“I often think of my mother when I read the stories people send you about their childhood gardens. She died when I was ten but she had a remarkable green thumb. We moved to a newly built house when I was five, and I remember going with her to a nearby farm and hauling back trailers full of composted goat manure which she spread all over the yard and mixed with the soil before putting in the grass seed. I remember thinking it was a very funny thing to do, but we had a thick and healthy lawn.
“There was a big rhubarb plant near the back door and she was constantly chasing us away from it so she could have enough for pies and sauce. We loved to eat those tart red stalks. She grew poppies, iris, glads, all the old favorites, along with my special favorite, pansies. Is there anything more charming than a little bowl with a child’s handful of pansy-faces floating on the water? Hmmmm, I think I’ll try to squeeze a few pansies into the Whaley House garden next year, just for Mom.” (Oct. 2006)
Nancy Wygant is the lead gardener at Bartram’s Garden, the Philadelphia homesite of colonial botanist John Bartram, where every fall she adds a few more of our authentic, 18th-century tulips to the gardens. She writes of her own past:
“The first yard I remember was mostly steep, with just a little flat area around the house. Then when I was twelve we moved to a house with a bigger flat space, and I wanted to have a vegetable garden. But my mother had waited all those years for a flat lawn on which to play croquet, and she wouldn’t let me dig it up. She told me I’d have to plant my vegetables in our gently sloping back yard, in the glorious high shade of several mature oaks. My carrots grew no thicker than pencils there, and it’s a wonder I didn’t give up. But it was worth letting my mother keep her croquet lawn. My parents were active in the local Victorian Society and a vintage dance group, and every summer they hosted lawn parties where all those folks gathered in their Victorian whites on our front lawn, played croquet, and sipped lemonade. It was a marvelous sight!” (Sept. 2006)
Our good customer Nancy McDonald (founding editor of the late, lamented American Cottage Gardener) gardens close to Lake Superior in Grand Marais, Michigan. She writes:
“Your mom’s hollyhock memories brought back mine: When I was a kid we used to travel to Iowa to visit my dad’s mother. She had a small garden, just some old flowers she had brought from their farm. Among them were some buff-apricot single hollyhocks that I thought were the most glorious flowers in creation. I loved them not only because they were beautiful, but because they were so tall. My dad was six-foot-three, but the hollyhock plants were even taller, at least eight feet, maybe nine. Since I was for many years the tallest girl in my class at school (and often the tallest girl in school, period), I loved those soaring flower stalks that made me feel short.
“Sadly, I never collected seed, so when Grandma died and the house was sold, I thought I’d lost them forever. I tried single hollyhock mixes, but none had the right buff-peach color. Then in 1993, John Mapel of Mapel Seeds (which specialized in old hollyhocks) sent me seed saved from a buff-apricot single in his garden. The plants grow eight feet tall or more (unless the deer prune them into shrubs) and the single flowers are the perfect color. A few are pink, but every year there are some just like Grandma’s.” (Sept. 2006)
Our good friend Joyce Cook of Austin, Texas, writes:
“Thanks for your invitation to describe one of my early garden memories. One can’t just accost someone on the street and say, ‘Hey, wait till you hear how lovely this garden was that I used to know.’ So it’s nice to be asked.
“In the Ozark town of Batesville, Arkansas, where I grew up, there was a neighbor across the back alley, Mr. Gene Boylan, who grew bearded iris. And I mean, he grew them! He must have had 15 rows, with about 15 plants in each, all spaced with their own hills and plenty of room to walk between.
“I was a child, not even a teenager at first, and was allowed to open his gate and walk down every row, pausing at every single plant to first smell it, then look inside it to the soft, radiant mixture of colors inside each blossom. The subtle blend and gradation of colors was wonderful to me, the way one color bloomed from the previous one, with no recognizable dividing line. I never cared for Disney-like, all-one-color shapes, but rather hungered for complexity and subtlety of design.
“I was a lucky kid to have this beauty in my own block. I now have a garden with a bearded iris section, and I frequently recall Mr. Boylan’s blooms with joy. I now know why he spent so much time out there.” (Aug. 2006)
Here’s a vivid, almost dreamlike early garden memory shared by our good customer Kathleen Marshall of Lansing, Michigan:
“Over 50 years ago as a child I remember driving out to Maple Forest, Michigan, where my grandfather lived during the temperate months at the old family farm. There was the big gray farmhouse with a windmill and next to them a field of red-orange Oriental poppies in full bloom. I asked my grandfather how that happened and he said he didn’t know. I have never, ever forgotten the sight of all those poppies. To this day, my heart sings when I see Oriental poppies.” (July 2006)
Remember when your backyard wasn’t something to groom and nurture but a place for adventure? Our good customer Karen Anne Kolling of Rhode Island sure does, and we hope her reminiscence here stirs some of your own happy memories of a time when even the weeds could be exciting.
“In the first house we lived in, before I was nine, there was a lone blue iris in the backyard, left from some old planting. To me it looked magical and enormous. There was honeysuckle, too, and somehow I learned how to remove the petals and taste the sweetness of the flowers. The bushes were just the right size for hiding under and imagining being in a cave. There was a huge maple tree overhanging the garage gutter, and when enough leaves had collected in the gutters, tiny little maple seedlings would grow all along it. I remember pointing them out, in delight, to my dad a couple of times, which was promptly followed by Dad’s cleaning out the gutters.” (June 2006)
Our good customer Nancye Renihan of Fairhope, Alabama, writes:
“I dug clumps of red spider lilies from my mother’s yard in Bay St. Louis, some of which had come from her mother’s yard. Whenever they pop up in my yard now, I think of the first day of school. We used to pick them for our teachers. Mom’s house was washed away by Katrina, but her spider lilies bloomed amid the rubble.” (2006-07 catalog)
Rudy Favretti is often called the dean of American landscape history. He developed the country’s first academic program devoted to historic landscapes, he has guided the restoration of Monticello and other major sites, he is the author of the classic Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings, and he has inspired us for decades. (Thanks, Rudy!) So we were delighted when sent us this early garden memory to share with you:
“Since I have had a garden for seventy years (my first when I was three), I have lots of memories. You suggested that for us gardeners, winter is a good time for reading, and I agree. So that got me thinking about my library, and which of the thousands of books I bought first. It was Montague Free’s All About House Plants. I had another book before that, Ferns and their Haunts by Clute (1901), but that was a gift from an old neighbor. Free’s book was brand new, and I bought it myself in 1946, the year it came out.
“How did I get the money to buy it? It was a Christmas gift from my great aunt; she always gave me four dollars. She was my paternal grandmother’s sister, and a grandmother to me since I never knew any of my grandparents; they were all dead and buried over in the Alps. Aunt Giuditta was a wonderful lady, all of five feet tall. She arose each morning at five, got her household chores done by nine, and spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon in her garden. She had about one-quarter acre of vegetables, but her flower garden was her pride and joy, and the talk of the village of Mystic, Connecticut. She could have written the book on sequence of bloom, color and texture, garden maintenance, etc. She was my first real gardening teacher, and she also supplied me with plants.
“The traditional Christmas flower for us Alpine Italians was the cyclamen, because they grow wild in the Dolomites whence we hailed. So it was a ritual every Christmas, when we brought Aunt Giuditta her traditional box of Whitman’s chocolates, for her to say to me, “Come see my pretty cyclamen.” We would walk to her plant room where it was cool, and admire the plant, usually a blood red, and as she did so, she would slip the four dollars into my hand while putting her forefinger to her mouth as if to say, “This is between us.” That year, 1946, I knew just what I would do with it because I had read about Free’s book as I would sneak looks into The Flower Grower Magazine each time I went into Davey’s News Stand to pay the weekly newspaper bill for my parents. I sent for the book, and after it arrived, I tried everything in it, from making a terrarium to air-layering.
“In closing, one thing that Aunt Giuditta taught me might not have met my parents’ approval. She said that snitching cuttings from plants here, there, and everywhere is NOT stealing, and now with Free’s book, I knew just what to do with the snitchings.” (April 2006)
Our good customer Cynthia Withee of Oregon City, Oregon, shares a bit of her own garden history:
“I grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where the summers are hot and dry. I had three sisters and we all had one large bedroom with a set of big double windows facing east. To cool the house, my mother planted a row of beautiful morning glories all along under those windows. With stakes and string she managed to create a literal wall of flowers that covered and totally shaded our bedroom windows. It also made me feel safe when the bedroom windows were open on hot summer nights, as the great veil of plant material allowed air to flow through, but nothing else. The flowers were all shades of blue and purple and maroon. It’s a wonderful memory. Thanks for jogging it.” (March 2006)
We asked you to send us memories from your own personal garden history, and you sure did! Here’s one we found especially moving from Georgeanne Davis of Rockland, Maine:
“I grew up in a small town in the Connecticut River Valley, but mine was not a gardening family. My mother’s parents had arrived in the New World as immigrants from Sicily and they proceeded to duplicate, as closely as possible I suspect, the village life they’d left behind. They fed ten children with their garden’s vegetables and fruits, eggs from their chickens, milk from the family goat. As a result, their children grew up longing for the real American experience: milk from the bottle, vegetables from the can, dinner from the freezer. I know my mom did.
“But I don’t think it takes being born to a Rosalind Creasy or Vita Sackville-West to love gardening from an early age; the slightest exposure can, I believe, plant the seed, or at least provide fertile soil for it. Over the past 30 years I have planted [all sorts of gardens, big and small, rural and urban.] But wherever I garden, I’ll never be without pansies in the spring because as a small child I helped my paternal grandmother plant the huge-faced old-fashioned varieties in a flower bed she cultivated along the sidewalk that led around to her back door. I patted soil and made mud with a watering can, I inhaled the pansies’ indescribable scent and rubbed their velvet softness along my cheek, I picked blossoms to float in a cut-glass dish of water on the dining table — and I was hooked for life.” (Feb. 2006)
Scott’s mom, Pat Kunst of Mishawaka, Indiana, emailed us this happy garden memory:
“When I was little I loved to find hollyhocks along the alley and float them in a pool of water like ladies dancing. In those days cars were kind of new and people were afraid to have the garage too close to the house for fear of explosion. Anyhow, lots of people had hollyhocks growing along the alley. We never did because our back yard was so shady we could hardly grow grass. Mother let us play with a big metal washtub. We would fill it with water and float our hollyhock blossoms on that. Didn’t all little girls do that?” (Jan 2006)
Our good customer John Dennis of Amityville, NY, writes:
“As a gardener, I am happy to report that the ‘Jersey’s Beauty’ dahlias I ordered from you this spring have exceeded all expectations. . . .
“But it’s as a son, not a gardener, that I really write. I had been searching for ‘Jersey’s Beauty’ ever since discovering — in the yellowed newspaper write-up of my parents’ wedding in August of 1937 — that both the church and their at-home reception had been liberally decorated with that flower. Combing all known U.S. sources, as I did for several years, turned up nothing. I was resigned to never seeing the bloom that my parents, both recently departed, had specifically chosen for their happiest of days.
“But thanks to you, the treasure is now once again blooming in Mom and Dad’s home town. Most exciting of all to me is that this year their anniversary falls on a Sunday, and the altar of the little country church in which they were married 67 years ago will once again be decorated with the self-same blooms as it was on that day, this time from my garden. My gift to them.
“Thank you so very much for helping me close a wonderfully sentimental circle in my family’s history. I will treasure my ‘Jersey’s Beauty’ dahlias year after year, and share them as widely as possible. And be assured that I will be back for more varieties next year. New no longer has the flashy appeal it once did. How much more grateful we ought to be for Old.” (Oct. 2004)
Although pink rain lilies, Zephyranthes grandiflora, aren’t hardy beyond zone 8, Julie Monroe has been enjoying them in zone-4 Wisconsin for decades.
Her bulbs came originally from her Great-Aunt Irene and before that from Irene’s grandmother. “They thrive on neglect,” Julie says. “The only thing I am careful about is to take the pots inside before the first freeze.” She stores them dry in pots in the basement all winter, brings them back outside in the spring, and they just get better every year.
For the whole story and Julie’s tips, or to try a few rain lilies yourself, go to oldhousegardens.com//PinkRainLily. (Jan. 2004)
Our good customer Dillon Jones of Salem, OR, writes:
“In the mid 1920s (I am almost 86) I remember I had a small garden on an 80-acre farm, no running water or electricity. I bought some ‘Clara Butt’ tulips and was very proud of the bouquet that I gave to my mother. I remember them as the finest flowers that I ever raised.” (2002-03 catalog)