Gardening Advice From My Gramma, Bula Kiser

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Gramma’s beloved pink roses, she worked hard to make them look this good.
Bula Kiser sitting on her front porch enjoying the pink and white flowers that surround her.

My grandmother always had the prettiest garden. She grew flowers while my Granddaddy took care of all the vegetables. Her blue and white Victorian house on Florida Street glowed with pink geraniums, pink and white petunias, and a glory of other blooms in her signature colors. Around the side and back, she didn’t let a color scheme restrain her, and her flower beds became full cottage gardens with red poppies, gold Jerusalem artichokes, purple wisteria, orange marigolds and flowers of every color in the rainbow.

Some of the flowers on Gramma’s front porch: petunias, lilies, and geraniums.

As she got older, she was less able to garden, and I became her apprentice. I followed her around her garden digging where she pointed and carrying the hose back and forth. She knew every flower, exactly what it needed, and how to care for it.

Here are a few of the things I learned from her:

Foxgloves from the side “English garden” at Gramma’s house.
  • Plant what makes you happy. Gramma always had a red cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) growing in a pot on her pink and white porch. It didn’t match, and she never even thought of moving it because she loved it right next to the front door. The original seeds had come from Monticello and, if it was good enough for a president, it was good enough for her.
  • Plant a berry patch in the back of the yard. I remember going “berrying” with her down in Webster County. We got dressed up in long pants and long sleeves on the hottest days of the summer to find the largest berry patches. I was the smallest and always got sent into the middle of the patch. And, we had to look out for bears. She planted a thin line of raspberries and black raspberries at the back of her yard — and I could go out with a bowl and “normal” clothes and grab berries quickly and easily.
  • Plant primroses of all kinds. Plant evening primroses (Oenothera biennis) because you can watch them open as dusk falls. Plant English primroses (Primula vulgaris) because they bloom early and bring color into a brown garden. Even plant “primroses” that aren’t really primroses. Primrose means first bloom, and she planted stunning little pink and yellow flowers that she called primroses, but I have never been able to find flower like them since. This is why I force myself to write down Latin names — because often Appalachians have different names for plants than everybody else does.
  • Always dig holes wider and deeper than you think you will need. This makes the plant happier and gives it room to grow. Fill the hole with water and go away for a while. Only plant when the water has drained back into the soil. This gives you time to look around and enjoy the garden because that is why you plant it in the first place.
  • Plant flowers that do double duty: Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) provides a bold, yellow back of the border bloom. Its Latin name means “sunflower with tubers.” In fall you can dig it up and get a pile of “chokes” that cook like potatoes.
  • Plant native plants because they won’t give you trouble. Her garden was filled with plants from the Appalachian area. She planted light purple wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and purple and orange New England asters (Symphyotrichum novaeangliae). She loved her rhododendron, dogwood (Cornus), and wild cherry tree (Prunus serotina). Her white trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) were her star flowers, but they were tucked back in a corner with a bit of shade because that is what they like. My favorite was always Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) which she called a “Johanna-cynth” just for me. Its maroon flowers gave a spicy, heady scent, and later it would bear berries that you could dry to season food.
  • Plant some fancy plants, too, even if you are not certain they will grow. Gramma managed to find a good spot for dahlias, which makes her a much better gardener than I am. She loved her pink roses enough to spend the time fighting blackspot, buttercups, and other rose-predators.
  • Soil is a living thing, not just because of the roots, worms, and critters — but the dirt, itself, is built from the remains of what has been there in the past. You must take gentle care of your soil, first and foremost, or the rest of the garden will not grow.
  • You can eat a lot of flowers such as violets (Viola species), Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) and nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus). Clover (Trifolium species) and honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) are sweet, and she ate them as candy growing up on the farm. But, don’t go around putting random flowers in your mouth, because many of them are poisonous.
  • Walk around the garden every day. You need to move, and the garden makes a short walk enjoyable, even when your arthritis is acting up. If you’re feeling more spry, it gives you a chance to dead-head and weed a little so those don’t pile up as a big chore.
  • Make time for a garden. At least a little one. It is important to go outside and have a little time in the sun. It’s important to touch dirt because it keeps you knowing where you are from. Today, they say that sunlight gives you Vitamin D, that touching the dirt is grounding and exposure to soil helps strengthen the immune system. My garden is not as glorious as my Grammas, but I always make sure to plant some herbs in pots even if I cannot do anything else.

Johanna Haas grew up in Buckhannon and now lives in Murphysboro, IL. She earned her law degree and doctorate in geography at Ohio State. Now she writes and teaches high school equivalency to adults. She is married to Shae Davidson, also from Buckhannon, and they live with three giant orange cats.