On Gardening


By Steve Humphrey
Photos by Kathryn Harrington


By the time you’re reading this, it’s early March, winter is loosening its grip and there are hints of spring in the air. For this issue on spring home and garden, I thought I would share some thoughts about one of my passions in life: gardening. There are many things I love about it. For one, for a fraction of what it costs to redecorate a room in your home, you can create a beautiful outdoor space that you can enjoy for years. If something doesn’t work, you can always rip it out and try again, without breaking the bank. I feel pure joy when I see plants that I planted in the fall emerge in the spring. It is exquisite. Those that know me know of my passion for gardening and landscape design. Ever since we purchased the estate 21 years ago, with its 29 acres, I have been rehabbing, designing and building gardens, and have learned a few things along the way. Many think that some are magically gifted with a “green thumb,” and that explains their “good luck” with plants. I can assure you, that is not true. Here are some tips to help you get started.

First, choose the right plant. From bulbs to annuals, to perennial shrubs, to trees, you have to plant them in the right spots for them to thrive. We live in climate zone six, which means we get freezing temperatures during the winter. Make sure you buy plants that are suitable for this climate. Second, plant them in the right places. Don’t put a shade-loving plant in full sun, or a photophilic or “light-requiring” plant on the north side of your house. Watch how the Sun moves during the day and year. Do you have dense trees on the west side of your yard that block the afternoon light? How many hours of sunlight does your garden get during a typical spring, summer and fall day? Third, and this is the most important, provide your baby plants with a good home. Don’t just stick a spade in the ground, wedge open a crack and stuff a plant into it. As the saying goes, put a $10 plant into a $50 hole. Dig a hole at least twice as wide and deep as the root ball you are planting. At home, I compost everything, so I have an abundance of rich, organic compost that I integrate into the soil whenever I plant anything. I also add Mycorrhizal fungi to the roots of woody plants, like shrubs or trees, as I plant them. You can buy bags of it in a clay-based powder produced by Espoma, among many other brands. It binds with the roots symbiotically and helps growth, especially with new plantings. Finally, provide the right amount of water for your plants. Many people overwater, which is just as bad as letting them get too dry. Water more when they are babies, and less as they get established. 

Here are my buying tips. I get a lot of my plants from online nurseries. I can recommend, without reservation, the following: White Flower Farms, classygroundcovers.com, Bluestone perennials, Backyard Berry Plants in Indiana, River Road Farms in Tennessee and fastgrowingtrees.com. All of these have great websites and features that will help you find the right plants that will work for you.

Let me leave you with my best wishes for happy gardening, and the immortal words of Bette Midler.

Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the spring becomes the rose.

Steve Humphrey has a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science, with a specialty in the philosophy of physics. He teaches courses in these subjects at the University of California, Santa Barbara and has taught them at the University of Louisville.