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Winter Reading

A collection of gardening books that can help beginners. Mary Jane Breitling.

A gardener needs more than houseplants to keep them occupied during long North Dakota winters. Some of us pass the time by reading and I recently read a book that included interesting observations of flora years ago. "The Checkered Years" is an excerpt from the diaries of Mary Dodge Woodward. Mary lived and worked on the Dodge farm near Fargo from the fall of 1882 to spring 1889.

Much of her entries chronicle the terrible weather, including minus 30 to minus 40 degree temperatures, blizzards and prairie fires. The wind blew constantly and was not tempered by trees on the wide open landscape. The only trees in sight were along the Sheyenne River some miles away. It was 'a muddy and sluggish stream' lined with oaks, cottonwoods, boxelders, and plum trees plus grape vine, and raspberries. Eventually they did transplant some Boxelder and Ash trees from the river to the farm and Mary wrote that they should have done it four years earlier.

The 1500 acre farm was small compared to some Bonanza farms (the Dalrymple farm was 11,000 acres). They grew number one hard wheat and she commented that in July 'Cass County was one vast ocean of wheat'.

Each spring Mary would miss her tulips back home in Wisconsin. She had brought along some Peonies that she covered each winter and babied along until they eventually provided beautiful blooms. The harsh wind and the jackrabbits kept her vigilant. She had four or five pansies her first year and continued to grow them each year along with Marigolds by the door. She kept a geranium indoors and it grew to great height, but even indoors it would freeze back and 'if the coal fire went out goodbye plants'. She eventually filled the front of a window with houseplants, including a fuchsia.

Starting in April Pasque flowers or crocus would appear on the prairie followed by yellow 'buttercups' later. In June roses began blooming and Mary said 'all Dakota is literally covered with them'. Roses and scarlet eyed daisies bordered the roadways. In August Mary wrote 'the sloughs are pink and white and purple with daisies'. Goldenrods feathery plumes were growing everywhere ('waysides all abloom with goldenrod and asters').

Mary and her daughter Katy would go out on the prairie and pick arm loads of many colors and varieties of flowers where they 'grow so plentifully without cultivation'. So where have all the flowers gone? Even in her time the flowers were rapidly disappearing because most of the land was sowed to wheat.

According to Mary, 'Dakota is a fine place for vegetables'. On the farm they grew potatoes, onions, peas, radishes, cabbage, beans, beets, carrots and cucumbers. Below the ground vegetables and cabbage grew exceptionally well and she mentions a 12 pound turnip. However the wind whipped tomato plants to shreds.

If you think you have gardening problems you might enjoy a humorous yet philosophical read. Check out William Alexander's "The $64 Tomato" from the library. Alexander has advice about many gardening problems including dealing with deer, groundhogs, and destructive insects. His struggles with landscapers, neighbors and garden helpers will keep you entertained. He eventually totals up the cost of his endeavors to come up with the $64 tomato, but was it worth it?

On a more serious note I checked out "Perennials for the Plains and Prairies" written by Edgar W. Toop and Sara Williams. Toop was a professor of horticulture at the University of Alberta for 25 years. Williams is a Horticulture Specialist with the extension division at the University of Saskatchewan. This book relates to our area more that most garden books and it includes the best listing of perennials regarding propagation, culture and use that I have read. It has much useful information on each plant plus good pictures of their flower and form.

My go to book of what to do when is, "Gardening in the Dakotas" by Melinda Meyers. She is a well-known horticulturist and garden educator from the mid-west. Her book addresses vegetables, herbs, annuals, perennials, bulbs, roses, shrubs, trees and vines on a month by month schedule. It is a good book to add to your personal library.

My favorite garden encyclopedia is "Rodale's All New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening". It is valuable even if you are not into organic gardening as it is filled with useful and practical information.

Soon we will be in our gardens again, but in the meantime books help to develop ideas and plans and get us enthused about the new gardening year.