HC: How did your gardens come to be listed with the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.?
LLR: The listing was not something that Wilma and I pursued. In fact we didn’t even know there was an Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian. It all started with a phone call from a gardener who was a member of a garden club in the nearby city of Cedar Rapids. The club wanted to know if they could get together with us to talk about a request from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Mystified, we agreed to a meeting. We learned that the Smithsonian had contacted numerous garden clubs in larger midwestern cities, asking for assistance in identifying gardens of note, particularly those with an interesting history. As we continued our conversations, it became apparent that our gardens fit well with the long list of criteria supplied by the Smithsonian. Club members worked tirelessly to document and map our gardens as required by the Smithsonian application. One of the items on it asked for the gardens’ name. Because we have a cottage on our property and because we have for many years jokingly referred to the open, grassy area to the east of it as the meadow, I suggested Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, and the name stuck.
HC: Do you follow a strict routine for starting seeds? Tell us your secrets for successful germination and transplanting.
LLR: A lesson I learned soon after I began raising plants from seed: start with sterile containers. I use mostly plastic ones and soak them in a mixture of soap and Clorox for several hours. I rinse them well with clear water before using them. Using unsterilized containers resulted in the dreaded damping off, where seedlings suddenly collapse and die. I used to sterilize my homemade seed medium as well. Now I simply buy a commercial seed-starting medium and have had no disease problems with that either.
Another lesson I learned early on was to check your planting medium often, so that it doesn’t dry out between waterings, causing your seedlings to wilt. That’s especially important if you use a heating mat as I do for those seedlings that need a bit of warmth to germinate.
Always follow packet instructions carefully. Some seeds need light to germinate, others don’t. Some respond better to cooler temperatures, some, as I’ve already mentioned, to warmer. Note the germination time—some seeds may take as long as a month to germinate—and time your sowing accordingly.
I start all my seeds under grow lights and on Sundays. I don’t have any particular inclination toward that day of the week. I just picked it at random. That way, I tend not to forget when seeds need to be started. I prepare standard mailing envelopes with the date of each Sunday written on the outside, starting with the earliest date that certain seeds need to be planted. I put the appropriate seed packets in the appropriate envelopes. When Sundays roll around, I simply grab the appropriately dated envelope and start planting.
Before I transplant seedlings, I harden them off by setting the seedling containers outdoors in light shade for several days. I try to transplant in the evening or on a cloudy day, so that the plants have a bit of a chance to settle in before being smacked with a full day’s sunshine. I water them well to make sure that the soil has settled in around the roots and there are no air spaces.
Tomatoes get a slightly different treatment. I try to grow the seedlings so that they’re a bit leggy. Longer stems mean I can plant them deeper into the ground. The more stem you plant underground, the more roots the plant will eventually have. That makes for a stronger, hardier tomato plant and probably increases yield.
HC: What vegetables give you and Wilma the most pleasure to grow and to consume? Which ones are essential to any well-stocked garden?
LLR: For both of us it’s not a particular vegetable, but the first harvest of any vegetable in the garden. Especially anticipated are the first varieties to produce, like lettuce, radishes, and peas. Lettuce by Easter was always a goal under the old communal system and held true for us for many years as well.
Essential to any well-stocked garden are tomatoes, potatoes, onions/garlic, and beans, simply because they’re staples in the kitchen. There are so many ways to fix them or incorporate them into other recipes. If there is room in the garden, sweet corn is an excellent choice. There is nothing more delicious than an ear or two of corn that was growing in the garden twenty minutes before you ate it. Purchased ears sometimes come close, but fresh out of the garden can’t be beat.
HC: Do you grow only heirloom seeds, or do you grow both heirloom and more contemporary commercial seeds?
LLR: We have our favorite heirloom tomato varieties, but we try a few new ones each year. Winsall is a large, late heirloom tomato that remains our favorite after decades of growing and testing other varieties. It’s meaty and juicy and has a flavor that’s unbeatable. Occasionally, we grow other heirloom vegetables not in the seed bank, but mostly it’s the contemporary varieties that over the years we’ve found to be especially tasty and productive.
Gardening the Amana Way by Lawrence L. Rettig