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The community gardener

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Posted on: March 1, 2021

Lila Stiff enjoys spreading seeds and sharing her gardening experiences at her home in College Park.

By Lila Stiff

Gardening season is almost here, and the hints of spring are irresistible after such a grueling winter. If the pandemic has opened your eyes to new gardening possibilities, you are hardly alone! So many of us have been pushed to outdoor activities we might not normally pursue during winter; birdwatching and nature studies, and even lawn care have been surging. And gardeners of all stripes and skill levels are eager to level up their expertise this season. I’d love to offer all of you an array of resources, with my last group of suggestions emphasizing the local.

Online offerings can be a great help for gardeners. The internet is awash with tips and tutorials, video tours of gardens, plant identification apps, specialty products and landscaping guidance. If you’re used to navigating online, have at it! But if you’re not so keen for a digital experience, I recommend books — there are many gardening classics that will walk you through the seasons in a more linear fashion. Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer is as classic and is as comprehensive as it gets; her in-depth discussions of perennials, annuals and vines are terrific. If you’re interested in starting an edibles garden, Raymond Nones’ Raised Bed Vegetable Gardening Made Simple is indispensable, hitting a sweet spot with just the right amount of direction and data. (His modular approach to building and planting raised beds is detailed and specific, right down to the size nails to use.) Say you’ve been purchasing seedlings for years but are ready to dive into growing your own? The New Seed-Starter’s Handbook, by Nancy Bubel, will give you the confidence you need. If you’re eager for flowers, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden, by Erin Benzakien, has a cult following, and for good reason. Or is your space limited? Are you a renter? Alys Fowler’s Garden Anywhere offers an approachable and inspiring menu of flexible, even renegade ways to get your hands in some dirt this season. 

 For all the guidance books can offer, it’s also great to take your questions to real people. Nurseries can be a terrific place to turn to for help, and they provide all the materials, tools and plants you’ll need. Hampton Nursery (7400 Annapolis Road in Landover Hills) will process your phone or online order for curbside pickup and offers bimonthly 10% days to senior members (membership cards are available at the front desk). Patuxent Nursery (2410 Crain Highway in Bowie), which regularly tops the list of best local nurseries, is expansive and has a professional landscaping division. Chesapeake Natives Inc. (9640 Rosaryville Rd in Upper Marlboro – you must call ahead for an appointment) specializes in ecotype native plants for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. If you’re up for a day trip (or willing to paying shipping costs), Go Native Tree Farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is a pioneer in native and edible tree propagation, and Edible Landscaping in Afton, Virginia, is a nationally recognized source for fruit trees and other exciting edibles, many of which are optimally adapted for our area (Zone 7).

         Our farmers markets are often a terrific source for a variety of healthy, interesting vegetable seedlings, herbs and perennials (You can also post an inquiry on NextDoor to see if any gardening neighbors have seedlings to share or swap.) And in the spring, MOM’S Organic Market stocks heirloom vegetable, herb and flower seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. (MOM’s typically carries a modest supply of seed starting trays and locally produced potting soil and fertilizers, too.) Southern Exposure’s offerings include heirlooms originating in the Mid-Atlantic, which do especially well in our region — and these seeds also have a strong place in local history and culture, which I find exciting. This year in my garden, I’ll be trying out Anne Arundel melons, which have been grown in Maryland since 1731 and are the subject of many an early American still life painting. I’ve grown Chesapeake fish peppers, a stunning, variegated-leaf pepper with strong ornamental quality, which bears tiny peppers in an array of orange, yellow, chartreuse and red hues. But far more important than the plant’s looks, this pepper is a critical piece of the history of our region’s Black foodways. Likely brought to the Baltimore area from Haiti, the fish pepper became a mainstay of Mid-Atlantic African American kitchen gardens by the 1830s and was a key ingredient in crab and shrimp recipes. And Spike Gjerde, chef of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, has brought the fish pepper back as the star of his Snake Oil Hot Sauce. This pepper will be making a comeback in my garden this year, too — bring on the heat!

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