The Alabama Housewife
Southern Humorist, Storyteller and Writer
I love Nancy Meyers. Her movies are spectacular and I am convinced I won't ever get enough of her brilliance. One of my favorites, It’s Complicated, features the story of a divorced couple who secretly reunite during their son’s college graduation weekend. It is a hilarious, heartfelt story and the performances are wonderful—and a side note here….John Krasinski steals the show. But truth be told, the real star for me was the garden outside the home of the main character Jane Adler— who is so beautifully played by Meryl Streep. That garden was glorious and blooming and covered with ripe, red tomatoes and summer vegetables. It made me ridiculously happy and it made me want to go home and plant a garden in my very own back yard. I’m from a small southern town so I simply knew I could do it. Gardening should be in my blood. I mean, I have helped my Mother pick squash and I have helped my Daddy plant corn. I have driven a tractor and to be quite honest, I have even plowed a field with a mule. (Okay-so it was one row and I was seven years old and my Uncle Stanley let me do it because I begged…. but still.) For the longest time I tried so hard to have a green thumb. Sadly, when I would bring home orchids and maidenhair ferns they all seemed to think they had come into my house to die. I couldn’t even keep kudzu alive. But despite all of that and the fact that for years I killed every plant I have ever tried to keep, after I saw that movie I just knew I could be a gardener if I tried. I was determined to have a wonderful, beautiful, flourishing garden like the one I saw on the big screen and insisted I was going to keep my family fed from it all summer long. “I can do this!” I said. And I was wrong. I did have quite a nice harvest of tomatoes and okra along with a few cucumbers but I was a horrible gardener. Simply horrible. I knew I could do better if I only had a little help and I refused to give in. So all those years ago I called in a real horticulture guru—my dear friend Bill Bennett. Bill’s knowledge extends to all areas of horticulture and I was delighted he was willing to share his guidance. Even though he still calls me a “city gardener” he had faith in me and now I can grow just about anything. I can even root things from cuttings and start brand new plants. It’s a miracle! And all of that to say—if I can do it you can too. So take Bill’s advice and get to growing today!
Houseplants Bill says some of the easiest houseplants to keep are ferns, peace lilies and pothos. These all require normal amounts of light and water and are fairly easy to maintain. If you want a little color try a bromeliad. These low maintenance plants have done well even for me and I have found that dropping an ice cube down in the center of the plant every four to five days will keep them looking pretty for quite a long time.
Flowering Trees We all love to drive down tree lined streets in the spring and see the pastel colors that fill every turn. If you want something pretty to liven up your lawn, try dogwood, bradford pear or tulip trees. These are all sure to brighten up your spring landscape and are all fairly easy to grow. For something more old fashioned look out a red bud tree. These actually have a purple blossom but are very beautiful and do well in a Southern climate.
Tomatoes As Southerners, we should all at the very least be able to grow a tomato. Opinions of them are quite varied and everyone has a favorite variety or valuable piece of advice to share. A couple of things that you’ll need no matter which ones you grow are nice, rich soil and plenty of water—especially for the first few days after planting. Be sure you don’t place your plants too close together and do all you can to keep the weeds away. You will need tomato cages as the plants grow and you’ll need to bind the plants to those cages with something soft but sturdy. Knee high panty hose always worked great for me and are an inexpensive solution. Regardless of whether you want to grow Better Boy, Cherry, Roma or Heirloom tomatoes; the one thing Bill says you must remember is not to plant them until after Good Friday.
Plants as Gifts Orchids, chrysanthemum and ivy all make wonderful gifts. They are all lovely plants and they are all great for folks with allergies. These three are great at purifying the air in a home and the bonus is they look pretty while they work! They all three will survive well near a window but away from direct sunlight and you should make sure to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. Orchids will do better with special orchid food once a month and you can easily find it at a nursery or at most home improvement stores. Just be sure to follow the instructions on the label of the one you choose. The ivy will need regular fertilizer or plant food once a month as well. Make sure you don’t fertilize the chrysanthemum though or it will stop blooming.
Growing Plants From Seeds This is going to sound strange but I promise it works for me every time. This is my own tip—not Bill’s—so blame me if it doesn’t work for you. If you have seeds to plant, take a damp paper towel and wrap it around the seeds. Then put the paper towel in a ziplock bag and place it in a dark, dry place for about a week. I usually stick mine in the back of a cabinet we rarely use. When you take out the bag several days later, you will be happy to find your seeds have sprouted beautifully and are ready to be planted. Depending on your soil and your region, you might want to transplant them to pots for a few weeks before putting them directly in the ground.
Growing from a Cutting My Mother can take a stick out of the ground, put it in a glass of water on the sink and a week later she will have a blooming camellia bush. It always mesmerized me when I was a child and seemed entirely magical. This is a skill it took me years to master but Bill says it can be accomplished even by a novice. He taught me that when you take a cutting from a tree or shrub you should let it rest or “heal” for a day or two before placing it in water. After it’s ready, keep it in a glass of water in a sunny spot and if you wait patiently it should start to grow roots. Once the roots are established you are ready to place it in a pot until it’s time to plant it outside.
Transplanting If you have a potted plant you want to move to a larger container, it is fairly simple. Try to take as much of the original dirt with you for the move and keep the roots intact. The new pot should have damp, ready soil and you should pack new soil around the original plant to keep it sturdy. If you need to move a shrub or small tree out in your yard, you should only do so in early or very late winter. You want to try to move things when it’s cold outside and they are dormant. Go ahead and have the new hole ready before you start to dig up the existing shrub. The dirt in the new spot should also be loose and moist.
I know there are probably a lot more gardening tips that could be helpful but for me, these have stood the test of time. I look back on Bill’s advice every year when I get my house ready for spring and it’s the perfect guide to get me on my way to a lovely garden inside and out of my house. I hope it will serve you just as well. If not, don’t feel bad about it. We can’t all be heroes of horticulture.
Before I sign off I want you all to know the truth about that famous movie screen garden I mentioned earlier. A few years after my first failed attempt at recreating it I read an article about the exact garden I longed to copy. It turns out it wasn’t really a garden at all. Oh, the plants were all real, but they had been grown in a hot house for months before shooting. They were transported to the set and staged perfectly for the garden scenes. The tomatoes were even wired to the vines to look just right. So if your garden doesn’t turn out exactly as you expect on your first try or if your fern gets brown edges don’t fret. Just take a little advice from Audrey Hepburn and remember: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”