Gardener’s Question Time is one of my favourite radio programmes, which I cannot explain at all because I’ve never had a garden. But it’s obviously planted a seed (sorry) because now that we have a new home with our own outdoor space, I’m desperate to get potted plants.
Thankfully, I knew just the woman to go to – and she’s definitely one worth celebrating.
Dawn Smith runs Crazy Organic Mama, a blog based around her love for organic gardening. Now I know what you’re thinking: “How trendy…”, but Dawn has been doing it for 25 years – “give or take a year or two” so it’s more than a passing fad, as her brilliant knowledge shows.
“I didn’t start out organic because I knew what it was,” she says. “I started out organic because I didn’t really know enough not to be. And I didn’t have the money for pesticides and chemicals.”
But that’s not all. At the age of 43, she decided to go back to university – or college, as this Connecticuter calls it, when it’s not school. (Dawn lives in Colchester in Connecticut, which has to be one of my favourite-sounding placenames.)
University is daunting at the best of times: new studies, new friends, new life. Now imagine what it’s like when you’re one of the oldest in the class – and your 19-year-old daughter is also at university, too!
But Dawn found her age was an asset, as you’ll find out…
She now splits her time between Crazy Organic Mama, looking after her family – husband Rick and their daughter Katelyn – and working part-time as a personal trainer.
She’s also planning a gardening consulting service, offering a free 20-minute consultation, followed by a low-cost written evaluation and solution to their problem and a brief follow-up consultation. If you’re interested, sign up for her emails (it will also give you access to her free resource library for when Gardener’s Question Time isn’t on. I have her Garden Basics bookmarked.)
Here, Dawn tells us more about going back to school, the physical and mental benefits of gardening and her guide to the best potted plants…
So, what made you return to education at the age of 43?
Simply because I wanted to! I know that sounds kind of silly, but I’ve been a student all my life, whether in school or out.
In 2012, I was sitting in a financial aid seminar getting ready for my daughter to start college. They mentioned that having two family members in college at the same time was much more favourable from a financial aid standpoint and my little ears perked up!
It took me a while to make the commitment, but I started in the fall of 2014, when my daughter went into her sophomore year (not at the same school. I was told in no uncertain terms that THAT was NOT going to happen!).
What was the most difficult part about that?
There were two things I found difficult about going back to school after almost 25 years. First, self-doubt. We all have that, I think, especially as women and I really wondered whether I would still be able to keep up. I’m not the kind of person who does anything halfway, so knew I would demand a very high level of academic excellence from myself, and nothing else would do.
The second was that I was out of practice. Going back to school after all that time, re-learning how to study, how to budget my time, even how to take exams again, was much more of an adjustment than I expected.
Do you think your age helped?
I think my age was an asset in that I could relate to my professors on a different level than I did as a kid. They treated me as an equal and knew I took my studies seriously and I believe it gave me some opportunities – such as independent study and lab work – that I may not have had otherwise.
They were also incredibly supportive and understanding of the unique challenges of a “non-traditional” student (that’s what they called us old people, LOL).
Why did you begin Crazy Organic Mama?
I started Crazy Organic Mama primarily to help people who think they can’t garden. I find it so sad to talk to people and have them say: “Oh, I’d love to garden but I have a black thumb.” Anyone can garden – they just need the knowledge and tools.
If you’re a beginning gardener and have no idea what you’re doing, read blogs like mine and visit your local library for some gardening books. If you’re the kind of person that enjoys getting together with others, join a local gardening club. Get all the knowledge you can and don’t expect miracles right away.
Gardening is, more than anything, about trial and error. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, moving plants, even killing plants until you get the hang of it. Just don’t give up!
What do you get from gardening?
That’s a tough question in some ways. I get so much from gardening, I’m not sure I can completely answer it.
Obviously, the easy answer is that I get most of the vegetables and fruits my family eats for the entire year.
But, it’s so much more. It’s going out to the garden in the morning and seeing a new plant flowering, or forgetting the passing time as I watch the bees buzz through the blossoms.
It’s getting dirty and sweaty, scratched, sunburnt and sore – but at the same time, feeling at peace with the world after a day spent in the garden.
It’s being stressed terribly about a situation and getting my hands in the soil for a few hours and magically, the stress is gone.
It’s feeling a tangible connection to my dad and my grandma, who were both avid gardeners and who are both gone now. I have plants in my garden that were my dad’s, and they make me smile (and occasionally cry) when I see them.
I guess, after this very long answer, the short answer is that it gives me psychological, emotional and physical health and if, like my grandma, I’m still bent over working in my garden at the age of 90, I’ll consider myself a very lucky lady indeed.
And what potted plants would you suggest for a south-easterly garden that gets a lot of sun but also shade? Asking for a friend, of course…
HERBS: A nice option for containers is herbs and with that much sun, you can grow almost anything you choose. Oregano, basil, thyme, mint, rosemary – really, any type of herb grows beautifully in containers and sun.
With the exception of the mint, you can mix the herbs up in one container or keep them separate. It’s totally up to you. An added bonus is that if this area is close to your entryway, rubbing against the herbs as you walk in will release their lovely scent.
If you have access to borage, it’s a lovely medicinal herb with beautiful purple flowers that the bees go absolutely wild for. I’ve never personally eaten or used borage, but I grow it for its beautiful flowers and for the bees.
As a bonus, most herbs are inexpensive to buy, so if you don’t choose to overwinter – although they will winter very nicely on a sunny windowsill – you can just buy new ones each spring.
FLOWERS: Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), marigolds (Tagetes or Calendula) and zinnias (Zinnia elegans) are also beautiful additions to containers. Small sunflower varieties are available and marigolds and zinnias will attract beneficial pollinators.
To help keep the bees in nectar right through the end of summer, aster (Symphyotrichum) is a great choice as it flowers later than many others.
Petunias (Petunia x atkinsiana) may also work for you as your summers are a bit cooler than ours. I don’t have a lot of luck with them because they tend to die out when the weather gets very warm here.
All of these flowers are annuals, so you won’t need to worry about overwintering them and can just replant plants or seeds the following spring.
BUSHES/SHRUBS: If you’d like a larger flowering tree that can be grown in a pot, try Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). I’m not sure whether this is available in the UK, but it’s a gorgeous flowering bush that can be trimmed to keep it small enough not to overwhelm an area (left to its own devices in a garden, it will get about 10ft tall).
One caution: Try to find a double-flowered variety, as the single-flowered varieties will seed prolifically every year. The double-flowered ones are sterile.
If you would like some winter interest, try Green Mountain boxwood (Buxus Green Mountain). It will stay relatively small in a container and grow into a pleasing pyramid shape over time. You can always underplant with a few small flowering plants to give the container more interest, if you’d like.
If you have access to it, sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is a nice addition underneath taller plants, and it comes in several colors, including white and pink.
Another very cool bush for containers is Japanese pieris (Pieris japonica). It’s an evergreen, so will look nice in winter, but in spring, it really shines. The new growth is incredibly colourful and attractive. Again, you can underplant with some flowering plants, but it will look nice on its own, too.
One last option may be a Japanese maple. They lend themselves well to container life because they grow very slowly and there are so many beautiful varieties, with both green leaves and red, that it’s worth looking into. Japanese maple makes a beautiful focal point in a garden or cluster of containers. (After seeing Dawn’s – above – I’m so getting one of these!)
Finally, what has made you smile today?
The sunshine. It is an absolutely beautiful day and as soon we’re finished, I’m going to go enjoy it!
Has Dawn’s story inspired you? Would you go back to school? Let me know in the comments below.
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