Thursday, November 13, 2014

Joe the Gardener: Still Resting on His Hoe Handle after 68 Years

Joe the Gardener

No one’s ever given me a horse, so I’ve never looked a gift horse in the mouth.  But recently a friend gifted me with a copy of Successful Gardening, a paperback collection of wisdom compiled by the Men’s Garden Club of Montgomery County in 1969, and on a cold November night, with snowflakes falling as a cold front approached, I picked up the deteriorating paperback and took a look.

Many features of the book clearly indicate its age:  Price of $1.75—hey, a single-dip Baskin-Robbins ice-cream cone now costs $2.79.  Only black-and-white photo illustrations plus a few line drawings.  An uninspiring—by today’s publishing standards—cover of line drawings of black ink on light-yellow cover stock.

Inside, about 30 chapters, all written by men, focus mostly on gardening basics (landscaping, soils and fertilizers, and composts and mulches, for example) and perennial flowers, such as chrysanthemums, azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, and irises.

Since I’m a vegetable-centric gardener, I looked for chapters on edibles.  I found two.  J. Levine contributed “The Garden of Eatin’” and Edward Wichers followed with “Ramblings of a Compulsive Gardener.”

Levine concentrates on veggies. Since I’m a tomato freak, I scribbled the names of the 11 varieties he recommended and checked them against the index of the 2014 Tomato Growers Supply Company.  I found four: Rutgers, Heinz 1350, Heinz 1439, and Big Boy on both lists.  Missing from today’s list are seven: Queen’s Knight, Campbell 146, Sunray, Pinkshipper, Marion, Superman, and Moreton, though they may be available from heirloom seed companies.   Tomato growers Levine and Nixon would have little to talk about if they could meet in 2014 to discuss tomato varieties.

And early on in his essay, Levine pointed out what must be a hard-learned lesson for some gardeners:  “Don’t raise vegetables to save money.  You won’t.  If I kept records, I suspect I would have earned less than 10 cents an hour for my time.  It’s the fun, flavor, and exercise that count—in that order.”  Well put, Mr. J. Levine.  That reminded me of William Alexander’s 2006 book, The $64 Tomato.

Levine directs readers to the University of Maryland Extension’s Leaflet No. 15 of the “most suitable Maryland vegetable varieties.”  Today the Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers a similar online brochure, Publication HG70, “Recommended Vegetable Cultivars for Maryland Home Gardens.”  Again I compared Levine’s list of tomatoes with the list of 49 recommended cultivars in HG70 and found only two on both lists: Rutgers and Big Boy. 

Wichers deals more with fruits and confesses his frustrations with tree fruits:  “Trial of the tree fruits was fun, but too demanding in proportion to the rewards.  The insect and fungus enemies of apples, plums, and peaches are varied and stubborn, and combated very successfully without equipment of the kind used in commercial orchards.”  He recommended small fruits—strawberries, raspberries, and grapes—coupled with “eternal vigilance” to prevent devastation by ever-present pests.

Reading between the lines and with historical hindsight, I thought the two chapters hinted at beginnings of gardening procedures embraced by many gardeners today—increasing use of hybrid vegetables to get around the pest problem and use of less toxic (to humans) pesticides.

And when I turned to the chapter following Wichers’, I started smiling.  It explained why the Men’s Gardening Club was established in 1946: “to redress the imbalance occasioned by the proliferation of women’s garden clubs organized in the wake of the famous wartime gardens of the early 1940’s.”   While GI Joe was fighting in Europe and Asia, Rosie the Riveter took over the airplane factory and Ginny the Gardener took over the home garden.

But I smiled even more as I read on:  Within a year, the club held its first “Ladies Night,” with the men serving refreshments and receiving prices for their “culinary productions.  The judges—all women—devised enough classifications, such as roundest cookie, biggest mess in the kitchen, etc. so every male chef received a first prize.”  Smart judges, those women!

Apparently all those blue ribbons paid off.  A quick search of the Internet showed that the Men’s Garden Club of Montgomery County exits today as the Metropolitan Washington Garden Club, with new members welcome without regard to gender or place of residence.

But one thing remains of the old club—its humorous mascot, Joe, who appears on both the title page of the 1969 book and prominently on the current club’s web page.  The old book explained:  “His doleful look comes from the burden he carries for all the members….  When he sows grass seed all the starlings gather.  He has the most crab grass and it all goes to seed.  If there is a Japanese beetle within miles, it’s on Joe’s roses.  The way the moles tunnel his lawn you would think this was the terminus of the District Subway.  Joe comes in spirit to our meetings….  He is always with us so we can laugh at ourselves.  Come over and visit us sometime.”
Gardening has changed in many ways since 1969, but today’s gardeners can still smile about Joe's challenges, his starlings, crab grass, Japanese beetles, and moles.


  1. This is great, Bob - and ha, I have a copy of that book sitting around somewhere, that I picked up at a sale years ago. Good winter's reading! Nope, none of those tomato varieties look familiar to me either. How things change (and don't).

  2. If anyone inquires, I'll be happy to give them the book, but it's showing its age--aren't we all--and starting to come apart.


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