Let’s dive back in to #GardenGreetings! In our third post of this summer’s blog series, we will be highlighting someone important to the garden team. She has been gardening religiously for 68 years. Her whole life has been centered around gardening and teaching. Especially teaching about gardening! Gardener Toi, from Sarasota, Florida, has been here for more than ten years. When she is not leading the other gardeners to keep the garden beautiful, she’s focused and determined in researching the latest advancements in the gardening community. As an important figure in the Master Gardener Association, Toi is open to sharing and teaching anyone everything they want to know about gardening…
How important is gardening to you?
Very. Very. I mean it’s just a part of my life. It has been for so long. I figure when I can no longer walk, I’ll have a raised bed and roll my wheelchair up.
Why do you garden?
Because I’m crazy. I wouldn’t know what to do without gardening. I’m 72. I’ve been gardening for 68 years. When I was 4, my grandfather, who was a peanut farmer in Alabama, sent me seed peas. That’s just shriveled up little green peas. Many have been left in the pod till they got dried out, and you plant them and they make peas. That’s the seeds I ate for my birthday, for my fourth birthday. I was the only grandchild he ever did that to. Something about when I visited and my love for the farm indicated to him that there was a little budding gardener in there somewhere. My mother helped me plant them and showed me how to stick little sticks in for these peas to grow up. I was living at the University of Florida in student housing because it was right after the Second World War. My father was going through on the G.I. Bill, and my garden was the top of a little low wall made of concrete block. There were little four or eight-inch square holes and we put peas in each and brushed them, and they grew up. [My mom] showed me how to harvest them and shell them, and then she cooked this little tiny bowl of peas for me to have for dinner. I’ve had a garden ever since. So, if you get a child [to garden] when they’re young, you’ve got a gardener for life. That’s why I’ve been gardening.
Why did you join the Master Gardener Association?
I love gardening and I love teaching, and I love teaching about gardening the most. I lecture and teach as a Master Gardener. We have a symposium every spring. Next one will be the first of April. It will take place at Holyoke High and it’s open to the public. I lecture frequently. For classes, we’ll offer 18 classes, so people can choose among the classes.
What’s blooming in the Wistariahurst garden today?
Oh, all kinds of things. The catmint’s blooming in the Rose Garden and the begonias. The catmint is a perennial the begonias are an annual. We started them from little tiny plants. You buy them as plugs from a wholesale nursery and then you get them. It’s less expensive than buying them as full-size plants because we’ve had I think a total of 1,300 plants to plant either start from seed or to plant from little plants plugs this spring for this place. We’ve also got petunias blooming.
What grows in you dream garden?
Everything fragrant. Because I’m from Florida, I’m accustomed to very fragrant plants. I like Jasmine, I like gardenias and Stephanotis, just all kinds of fragrant plants.
What’s your major challenge as a gardener?
It’s just staying ahead of everything because I garden both here and at my home. You catch up at Wistariahurst and then you’ve got to catch up at home. I don’t usually start my gardening until after we get the annuals planted here, which is the end of May. By then, the weeds are almost as tall as I am.
At what capacity are you the leader in the garden?
I try to keep an eye on what needs to be done next. Although most of gardeners keep an eye out, they’ll know where things need weeding, but just try to keep it so that we’re not just doing maintenance because our job is to restore the garden. If you just keep your head down and weed, you’re not doing anything new, and the gardens would never have gotten to where they are now. If we hadn’t started new things, like planting the catmint in the beds alongside the Rose Garden, then we wouldn’t attract new visitors. You must figure out how you’re going to do it, how you’re going to afford the plants, and then set aside the time, and do it when you can and have people to help. I also am sort of in charge of figuring out what new things we’re going to do every year.
What advice do you have for people who want to start gardening for the first time?
Read about it. You can read up online. Check out the Master Gardener Symposia. We have the one in Holyoke. There’s also one in South Deerfield and one in the Berkshires. If people can’t make the Holyoke symposium, the South Deerfield symposium is growing rapidly, and there’s lots of availability in courses there. We have beginner courses and more advanced courses. Come [to Wistariahurst] on Tuesdays and Friday mornings from 9 until 12: we will teach you everything you ever want to know about gardening and all the shortcuts on how to do it quick and easy. What we call a down and dirty way, because there we’ve learned shortcuts There’s no sense someone starting out having to learn the same hard way we did when we can show them an easy way to do something.
How would you describe your experience gardening at Wistariahurst?
Well it’s just lots of different things. We do garden cleanup in April. We get ready for the plant sale which is in May, which is a lot of potting up and dividing perennials meaning we also do divide in the fall and pop them and store them above ground covered with leaves. We have the plant sale which is a major undertaking. We think [the director] had said it had as many as 600 people on the tally sheets. People lined up from the gate, all the way down Hampshire [Street] before we open the gate. I’m in charge of doing the Republican articles for both the symposium in March and the Wistariahurst plant sale in May and then frequently for the master gardener class every other year. Once we get through the plant sale, we’re planting the annuals on the ground and weeding like crazy all summer. We also water the areas that don’t have irrigation; we have an irrigation system leading those areas that don’t get rain. In the fall, we have garden cleanup: perennials must be cut down, annuals dug up, and we do some potting.
Do you have a specific plant you’d love to see bloom?
Out here, the wisteria, because it is the signature plant for the place. At home, I have a form of salvia. It’s in the mint family. Well Salvias are in the mint family but it gets about three feet tall. It’s the most beautiful shade of blue. It’s not hearty here, so I must dig it every fall much like you do dahlias. I must keep it in my base. It’s a perennial, but it’s started blooming already. It usually starts blooming sometime around the 4th of July. It was a little early this year because of the heat, and it will bloom until heavy frost which is most unusual for a perennial. They usually only bloom two to four weeks at most. Some only a week to 10 days. This thing just blooms nonstop with these beautiful indigo blue blooms. Then I must spread them out around my yard, otherwise the hummingbirds fight over you and me and they fight to the death.
What do you want to say to the visitors of the garden?
Enjoy. They are here for you to enjoy.
Antonio Quiñones Negroni is a student at University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez at his second year of internship at Wistariahurst Musuem. Antonio loves to find creepy objects in the corners of the museum.