Moore: Although my grandfather and my father had gardens, and my father planted a patch of mint in every place we ever lived, I have a black thumb and have had numerous failures with my “crops.” Do you have many failures?
Elliott: Yes, I have many failures! Each time we work through a “problem,” that’s one new skill we have for a better season next year: spring deer, bunnies, over-fertilizing container plants, salts, evaporation, squirrels, too much sun, too little sun, fungal diseases, carelessness, wind … It’s all a learning experience.
Moore: Does your garden attract many birds? The deer here on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee destroyed my first season of home-grown tomatoes, and I’ve refused to replant. Do animals eat your produce?
Elliott: We have a lot of birds here (about 75 species come through each year), but none have bothered our garden. Some are helpful (like bluebirds, which eat insects). The goldfinches enjoy our sunflowers. Hummingbirds visit the tomato flowers (though I’m not sure if they’re effectively pollinating). Turkeys come through in the spring before plants are out of the ground. In the summer many birds move to higher elevations. Deer also move to higher elevations, or else they would really be hard to control. All we need for bunnies is a two and a half foot high chicken wire fence. No digging under fences around here because the ground is too hard and rocky! We share occasional tomatoes with chipmunks; they’re too hard to control (and they’re awfully cute). It’s too dry for slugs or snails, but I demolish a lot of tomato hornworms and the like (so much for being an entirely ethical vegetarian…); ying-yang.
Moore: I know that one summer Gary wrote to me about preparing sauces and other products from tomatoes. What foods or preserves do you can or bottle?
Elliott: All varieties of tomato sauces/salsas, though my favorite it just plain cooked tomatoes (like Gary’s mom used to make). Also peaches (big chunks, in a light sugar-water solution). The valley farms have GREAT roasted chilies (heavenly!!), which we freeze and can. Pickles and ketchup are favorites, too. When we make it to Virginia in the fall, Gary’s family hauls out the 30-gallon copper kettle and cooks down about 10 bushels of apples into apple butter. Gary is the king of canning. His mom canned her whole life, and Gary learned from her. Gary is very good about making sure sauces are good and boiling, and he makes sure the jars boil for extra time to kill any potential bad guys. We also bottle homebrew Imperial Pale Ales, but that’s a different story.
Moore: Do you have an herb garden?
Moore: Gardening is known to be an activity that not only nourishes the body, in terms of exercise, and in produce received, it nurtures the soul. Would you speak to this idea?
Elliott: I find gardening extremely therapeutic. When gardening, I forget my (imaginary) troubles and feel like a kid. Yes, it’s a good work-out (especially hoeing hard dirt and hauling water in five-gallon buckets). And yes, the produce is yummy. But I’d do it all even if I didn’t get anything “tangible” from it. Even container gardening indoors, we’re connecting with earth. I’d even venture to say hydroponic gardening would connect you with something totally intangible, a life force—even if it’s the life force of garden “pests.” Just like reading connects us with a creative literary force, and that feels good. I think there’s something deep inside us that explodes into pure joy when we connect with that greater force, that connective tissue of animal and plant and mineral. Smelling freshly watered dirt will do it for me. I’m thankful. Gardening restores my connection and thankfulness. In a troubled world, it’s good to find life.
Photography courtesy of Gary Entsminger and Susan Elliott.
Susan Elliott has a B.S. in Botany, a B.A. in French from Humboldt State University, and a Ph.D. in Biology from Dartmouth College. She has studied ecology, evolution, and conservation of plant-pollinator mutualisms. She has lived in Mariposa, California, southern France, Georgia, and New Hampshire. She moved to Colorado to do pollination research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Crested Butte (the official Wildflower Capitol of Colorado), and is a gifted scientist and artist.