family road trip: New Hampshire

The next stop was Keene, NH to visit my husband’s youngest brother and his family, our first time at their house.

It was such a treat to see them in their home! You know, you hang out with people and visit them here and there, but being in their home — seeing their projects, looking out their windows, eating their food — is such a completely different experience. It gives a much more nuanced and complete picture of who they are.

I’d told my sister-in-law not to expect us for supper. I didn’t know when exactly we’d be able to leave the farm, and I didn’t want to make them wait for us, but that McDonald’s pitstop (my one-time fast food concession for the whole trip, not counting Dunkin Donuts and Subway) turned out to be one of my biggest trip regrets. Because when we arrived, they were just getting ready to sit down to supper: a whole bunch of homeamde pizzas, the sourdough crust all bubbly and blistered black. Even though I wasn’t hungry, I had a piece of the white pizza — artichoke, basil, fresh mozzarella, and garlic — and it was, quite possibly, the best pizza I have ever eaten, and I’m not even being hyperbolic, promise. (Later, I took notes on her method and ingredients, and today I have plans to replicate her kitchen wizardry. The bar, however, has been raised quite high. I’m not sure I’ll be able to reach it.) 

The next morning after a feast of eggs, blueberry muffins, and a dazzling fruit salad, my SIL took me on a tour of her gardens. I’ve always known she liked to garden, but her gardens were like none I’d ever seen before, rambling and half-wild, and absolutely everywhere: in the woods, around the house, behind the shed, on the side of the hill, down in the meadow. I’d had no idea.

every inch of this, she knows

There were log-lined “raised” gardens, and rows of hay bales that she planted in directly — the bales made raised gardens one year and then, as they decomposed, excellent mulch the next. In the tree stumps, she’d drilled holes for mushrooms. There were stepping stones and little hoop houses and staked plants. There were little wild strawberries woven in among the asparagus and potatoes, cultivated strawberry plants here and there, raspberry bushes, fruit trees, little patches of lettuce and peas.

strawberries, mint, garlic, asparagus

She told me about how when they’d bought the house, the flower gardens were full of orange tiger lilies and how, over time, she’s dug them all up and replaced them with plants of her choosing: pear trees and flowers and different varieties of honeyberry bushes. I’d never heard of honeyberries before, but they’re like blueberries, only better — more juicy and tart — and shaped like a cross between mini mangoes and fruity pebbles. (In the fruit salad photo above, see if you can differentiate between the honeyberries and blueberries.)

Down in the meadow, beneath the grape arbor, she showed me her method for making a garden: she digs up a three or four foot strip of dense field growth, plants in the fresh strip, and piles the grass and weeds at the far end of the newly overturned ground. The next year, she sifts through the pile of composted sod, pulling out the weeds and rocks, and then uses the rocks to make a border along the edge. She plants in the composted section and then digs a new section. Bit by bit, she’s carving a garden into the hillside meadow in front of the house. 

note the new bed cutting into the field of ferns

As we walked along, she’d occasionally pluck a diseased leaf, or yank out a weed. I’d look at the ground around me and see what looked like rambly undergrowth, and then she’d come along and name each plant, cultivated and uncultivated. She explained how she gets a start from a bush — by stapling a branch into the ground, covering it with dirt and then, once rooted, clipping it off and transplanting. She talked about transplanting whole sections of garden, adding more “show” (her lingo for color pops) to different areas, and scavenging bits of wire to cobble together trellises. 

pear, herbs, roses, and lots of “show”

Hearing her talk as we walked through her gardens, it was like I was seeing an artist at work, but with soil and seeds instead of canvas and paints. The depth of her knowledge, her hard work, her exuberance and joy, her boundless creativity and energy — it was stunning, truely. And inspirational. To me, gardening has always been tied to drudgery and work, productivity and perfection, but to her, gardening is how she plays.  

hay bale bed

And it’s not like she’s spending boatloads of time out there. Shocking, right? But really, she doesn’t have much time to garden, what with the small kids and her other projects, like spinning yarn and knitting intricate sweaters she designs herself. When I pushed her about how much time she spends gardening, she said, after thinking about it a minute, about an hour a day, probably. Hearing her say that unlocked something for me — gardens don’t have to be all-consuming affairs. I’m not going to suddenly turn into a gardener, I know, but doing better at it — and maybe enjoying it even — could be within reach. 

grazing on wild strawberries

For example, and it might sound silly, one thing I gleaned from her is this: cut out the bad plants. I always thought I needed to pull the weeds out from the roots, but she repeatedly mentioned how she clips out the bad plants. So the day after we got home, I went down to the raspberry patch and cut out the big weeds I can never seem to get rid of. And it was good enough!  

This same time, years previous: teen club takes Puerto Rico, buttermilk brownies, lemon ice cream with red raspberries.

10 Comments

  • ccr in MA

    Oh, I too love to see people where they live! Having that background is so nice. I once visited my brother in a place he had lived for years that I had never seen, and when he moved a year later I was kind of upset. I only just got to see it!

  • suburbancorrespondent

    Your SIL is a true artist, and that garden is her canvas. Is she on Ravelry, by any chance? I’d love to see what she does with yarn!

    I’m sitting here wondering if it is any easier to clip than to pull weeds? Seems the same to me – and when I pull up by the roots, it usually ends up removing a lot of what looked to be separate plants, so pulling up the roots might even save time in the long run? Or maybe that’s only down here where all the weeds seem to send out runners underground…

    • KC

      So, yes, pulling it up by the root is the Immediate Weed Death option and is generally gardening “best practices” and all that.

      But I recently killed a dandelion plant by just yanking off its leaves (a 5-10 second operation which required no tools or mess) once a week for five weeks or so as I went past the plant on the way back from PT, and *man* was that ever easier than digging a dandelion root out.

      I’d expect snipping to be similar: yes, you’ll have to repeat the snip, but for those who don’t like digging up weeds, it’s vastly less painful – and may also take less human-active time than pulling the weed up for root-heavy weeds.

      We now mulch the back garden with cardboard, which is visually hideous but is both free and effective in our climate/situation, so the front flowers are generally all that need weeding. And are plenty to remind me of why we mulch the back garden even though the cardboard’s ugly…

      (also a note that this garden is gorgeous – rambly gardens are my favorite – and I am glad to hear about honeyberries… I love it when people can do their thing, and do it so well!)

  • Wendy

    Living in brickstone-small-housed-small-gardens-Netherlands this house and gardens look really, really beautifull to me. Only an hour a day, wow. Respect for what she/they accomplished (pizza’s inlcusive 😉

  • Viviane

    I think your SIL is following the principles of Permaculture (knowingly or not) that says that the gardener should not work against nature but with it, and think about balance. For instance, the ground in the garden should never be naked, and when you dig out or cut the weeds you can leave them in place so that they rot and feed the ground. I am sure you would discover lots of joys by searching Permaculture on the net.

  • Thrift at Home

    Oh, I love these gardens and her approach! I get tired of seeing prissy beds. I like a bit of wildness, a bit of trial and error.

    I also remind myself that I am supremely confident and experienced in the kitchen in all kinds of ways – but I didn’t start out that way. I had to learn over years. So I try to take that approach with gardening, too!

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