For many people, gardening is a hobby, a chore, or a pastime. For Columbia resident Joyce Strickland, who loves to be in her garden early in the morning when she can hear birds singing, gardening is also a way to remember friends and loved ones from days gone by. With each plant, there’s a story. Her story.

Strickland’s irises came to her garden from her grandfather’s home in Southern Maryland, where they had been growing for decades, by way of her mother who had moved some of them to her own yard when Strickland was a child and her grandfather passed away. When her father passed away 8 years ago, she rediscovered and moved the neglected plants which had been forgotten about since her mother’s death 25 years ago, to her own yard, where they are thriving now.  “I was able to revive them and put them in my own yard so the legacy would continue,” Strickland said.

Joyce Strickland stands in her garden. (April Chen / OutLook by the Bay)

There were just 20 malnourished plants, about 4 inches high and without blooms for many years, when the home was sold, and Strickland brought them to her home. “I fed them and put them in good soil, and they replicated, giving me now about 100 of them, each producing three to four blooms during their season.”

None of her flowers were purchased at stores. Most remind her of people who have blessed her life — from childhood memories to friends in her neighborhood, whose plants came to her through community exchanges.

Her 40 purple coneflowers were coming up near the irises at the time of this writing. They came from a $2 package of seeds she bought when she retired from the federal government. They too, have grown and multiplied, and she has gifted many of them to her friends. “I love watching the birds feast on the thousands of seeds they pick from the center of the blooms once they are starting to fade,” she said.

Her rose bush had only one bloom before she put up a fence. The deer used to eat it, and now it sits inside her gate, away from critters.

Her light pink peonies were a gift from her sister-in-law, who had them planted by her front door for many years. “But she tried to remove them when she had a problem with ants in her house and learned that ants are attracted to these plants,” she said. Strickland’s sister-in-law hired someone to dig up the peonies and move them away from her house, while also gifting a few to her. They are mostly planted outside Strickland’s fence because the deer don’t eat them.

This year she already has blooms in the vegetable part of her garden which includes strawberries, tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers. She also hopes to be able to double her bean crop since building a trellis this Spring with her husband’s help.

She’s looking forward to growing pole beans, which can be grown in a small area and yield beans over a longer time than the bush varieties. “Once these start producing, I will plant more so I will be able to pick beans most of the summer from just my two plantings,” she said. 

Strickland shared some gardening tips:

Good soil is everything. Hers contains manure, which revived her family’s plants that had been neglected.

Choosing the right plants for the right location is important. Different flowers survive and thrive based on the amount of light there.

Decide whether you want an annual, which lasts a year, or perennial — which you can cut down to the ground level when fall arrives and amazingly, the roots will survive Maryland winters. Perennials come back year after year with good care.

In our area, you need to consider whether the plant is creature- or “deer-resistant” which means that there are plenty of other things around to eat first that she called “deer candy.” Otherwise, she said you should save your money unless you have a fenced area.

One of Strickland’s favorite plants that deer won’t eat are cleomes. “After they bloom, they form lots of seeds which makes them self-seeding,” she said. Cleome seeds will survive the winter and produce new plants the following year.

For a beginner looking to grow vegetables or other foods, she recommends starting with a 2-by-8-foot bed, so that harvesting is easy and reachable from all sides. If there is not that much space available, she said that tomato plants can be grown in a bucket.

Gardening is also therapeutic for Strickland. She said it brings back wonderful memories of her childhood, when she earned money by selling vegetables at her grandfather’s roadside stand as soon as she could be trusted to give correct change to the customers.

Sometimes gardening can also be a source of heartbreak. “Last year the bunnies ate all of my bean plants, and the baby bunnies were small enough to get through my fencing,” Strickland said.

So, this year, she put plastic deer fencing around the beds, as well as bird netting over them to keep the Brood X cicadas out. “So far I can still hear the birds chirping over the loudness of the cicadas,” she said. “But I am not sure I will be able to the whole summer.” 

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