The Origin of The Mountain Gardener & Other Stories

Which came first, the gardener or the writer?  I think a writer who gardens can’t help but put their thoughts down on paper. Think ‘The $64 Tomato’ or ‘Green Thoughts’ by Eleanor Perenyi. Actually it was my father who started me on this path. I remember his tomatoes- red, orange, yellow, lavender. I loved them all. And he gave me my own patch in the garden where I grew those giant pansies with faces.

My father always wanted me to be a writer and researcher for National Geographic, encouraging me to take writing and science classes. My interest in nature and photography was the easy part. It was the 60’s, though, and if you grew up then you know that one didn’t always do what was expected of you. I did study science at Humboldt State and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo acing plant taxonomy class.

After I moved here, I started working at The Plantworks Nursery which really wasn’t work at all. Then one day several years ago I had an idea. I typed up a sample column and marched into the editor’s office for The Press Banner. Little did I know that he had taken horticulture classes himself and so had a soft spot for my idea to write a weekly gardening column. Next thing I know he’s saying he wants 5 columns, 400 words each, excluding prepositions, on his desk by Friday and the column would be called ‘The Mountain Gardener’ and not ‘Ask Jan’ which I had suggested. I knew my father would be proud. I was a newspaper columnist.

So on this anniversary of my 300th column I want to share with you some interesting gardening lore and a story about  one of my own gardening faux pas. 

I confess, I’m not one who talks to plants. Although I have a huge hosta seboldiana named Bob as well as an offset that I cleverly named Bob the Second, I don’t address them personally. Maybe that’s going to change. I was very intrigued reading a recent article in Audubon magazine by Nathan Ehrlich.  Scientists have discovered that plants give off electrical impulses in response to threats. Polygraph expert and former CIA interrogation specialist Cleve Backster confirmed this when, on an impulse, he hooked up a tropical dracaena to a polygraph and threatened the plant with a flame. The dracaena displayed the same electrical signals that people do when they lie. From lettuce to bananas, the results were similar.

Biologists Baldwin and Schultz have published work suggesting that some plants can communicate through the air. When the researchers threatened poplars and maples they found that nearby trees with no physical contact released defensive chemicals than inhibit digestion, thus hindering predators’ ability to consume the trees leaves or bark. Now I know what my hosta Bob’s doing when Bambi comes calling and why he’s never so much as been nibbled.

File this story under "what was I thinking?"  You understand if you’re a gardener that nothing will deter you from planting something you really want. Lack or space or sun or time- nothing will get in your way.  So it is with me and tomatoes. I dream about biting into those luscious gems right off the vine, juice dripping down my hand. One year I had what I thought was a great idea. I’d let the vine grow out into more sun off the side of the deck. Well, as summer progressed I marveled at how many tomatoes I was getting. This was going to be a banner year.

Then came the the day to start the harvest. I reached out to pull in the vine like it was Rapunzel’s hair. As you know, tomato vines aren’t like hair or rubber bands. Even a 5th grader would have seen the flaw with my plan. Guess my little gray cells needed some rest. I spent the rest of the season harvesting only the part of the plant I could reach and had to wait until fall to get the ones that were remaining.

Live and learn Hope springs eternal in gardening as it is in life.  I hope you have enjoyed reading the last 300 columns as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.

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