Michelle Sutton

My pathway through community gardens

by cathym on July 3, 2020

Story and photos by Michelle Sutton 

For about ten years, the author did garden design, installation, and maintenance in greater Rochester. Courtyard gardens were especially fun and rewarding.

I have a community garden to thank for getting me into horticulture in the first place. I was twenty and living in an egalitarian community (secular commune) of about 100 people in central Virginia. Tom was a rare visitor my age who’d come from Northern California for a three-week stay. He was super fired up about growing vegetables. The first crop we bonded over was spinach. Tom was very, very excited about spinach.  

I was fired up about Tom, so I followed him into the fields, and as we spent time tending the rows and talking, his enthusiasm for the vegetables sparked something in me. I had hoped Tom would become a member of the community and provide the romance my life there was missing. Devastatingly, he decided not to stay, but I nursed my broken heart by throwing myself deeper into vegetable cultivation.  

The community’s garden and grounds manager, the lovely Jake, was very kind to me during that time when I felt so raw. Jake, who grew up on a working farm, moved three times as fast as anyone else. He decided what to grow and he delegated tasks, but owing to his superior energy and efficiency, he also did the lion’s share of the work. Because of his dominance of the gardening realm there, I could see that I was only going to advance so far in my horticultural knowledge and opportunities. Also, I really needed to be around more people my age.  

In the summer of 1990, I got a position as a gardener at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. We were given room, board, access to some workshops, and $200/week. This seemed like a dream for twenty-year-old Michelle. A woman named Sue headed things up, and she and I and one other seasonal person divided the work. 

The author in 2019.

I made compost with scraps from the institute’s kitchen. I learned how to build a three-bin compost unit (fun side note: when my husband and I went to the Omega grounds to walk around more than twenty years later, the bin was still there). I tried not to fork snake eggs when I pitchforked leaf mulch into the first of the three bins. I gave tours of the garden to well-heeled and gracious New Agers from New York City. In late summer I loved to give them raw corn to shuck and taste, and sometimes there’d be a corn husk completely filled with the black spores and white goo of the corn smut fungus. That was reliably a graphic and fun gross-out for everyone involved. (I’ve since learned that corn smut is called huitlacoche in Mexico and is eaten as a delicacy there. Also, you gotta love how plant pathologists name things so forthrightly, a là nipple gall, butt rot, scabs, and cankers.) 

Even though there were dozens and dozens of staff and several hundred participants coming through every week, I was lonely at Omega, too … lonely in a sea of people. I was a member of a community, but I never felt like I belonged. That wasn’t Omega’s fault. There was actually so much going on all the time there that my introverted nervous system was overwhelmed. I remember a lot of therapeutic crying in the garden shed in the evenings, until my roommate left her internship early and then, praise heaven, I had my own rustic room to cry in.   

In the fall I headed back to my home state of Virginia and got hired by an organic vegetable farm in metropolitan Washington, D.C. There, a community of mostly Bolivian workers had established themselves in affordable living arrangements and would remain year-round. Within a few minutes of being hired, as I was being given a tour of the operation, I saw this really handsome tall fellow stand up and look my direction. That was the sweet jack-of-all-trades Oscar, who loved babies and animals and Bolivian folk dancing. To my parents’ shock, he and I got married after knowing each other for six weeks. I don’t recommend that. Nonetheless, we continued to date for several years after the annulment, and he was extremely kind and helpful to me and my family during some very stressful times.  

The author’s most successful community garden plot year owed to a confluence of factors: going no-till (therefore, not churning up weed seeds), procuring the region’s most lovingly produced seedlings, mulching beds and paths very heavily, staying on top of the few audacious weeds that poked through said mulch, abundant rainfall and moderate temps that summer, and not being on the board at the time.

Spanish filled the air in that farm community, and I delighted in that. Thanks to beloved early childhood neighbors who were from Ecuador and spoke Spanish while I played with their kids, I had a good ear for it and was able to join in conversations. However, on the occasions when Oscar and his sister and brother-in-law didn’t want me to understand what was being said, they would speak Quechua, their third language. Sneaky. 

Oscar and I went to a lot of parties hosted by Bolivians where everyone danced—I mean everyone—there were no chairs around the room. That was fun, although I did have to learn the ways in which our cultures were different and stop centering my own. Arriving at one party, the host greeted me smilingly with, “Hello Michelle! You are fatter than before.” I slinked off to the corner to cry, but Oscar gently explained to me that in his culture, observations of fatness or thinness carried neutral weight. They weren’t insults. (American culture would benefit greatly from getting on board with this.) 

I joined my first official community garden—a grid of plots in a field—in Reston, Virginia. 

My garden neighbor said, “I can tell you know what you’re doing.” The garden did start out swimmingly, with a pretty mandala-like design, but ironically, since I’d started going back to school to study horticulture, I stopped going to the community garden regularly. All of a sudden, the weeds were horror-movie tall. 

Oscar helped me clean the plot out, and I came away with a miserable case of poison ivy. That’s when I knew that there were limitations on my gardening freedom. I could/cannot afford to wade around in bleeping poison ivy. I am very careful about this. So imagine when my surprise when I got it a couple of years ago in January—JANUARY!—from snuggling with my friend’s newly adopted husky. SNUGGLING WITH AN ADORABLE DOG! It’s just so unfair. 

The author’s favorite sunflowers (‘Chocolate Cherry’) from her erstwhile community garden plot.

My first long-term experience with community gardens was after moving to the Hudson Valley in 2010 to be with my then-new husband. We marveled at how at this community garden seemed to be deeply inhabited, with semi-permanent structures like pergolas, sculptures, elaborate fancy-rustic fences, and even a swing! We got a plot and found out that the reason people had settled so thoroughly into their plots was that unlike most community gardens where the entire area gets plowed every spring, in this one, folks could keep their same plot year after year. 

That was cool, since it seemed to generate all this creativity, but it turned out to have a major downside: entitlement. The longer people had their plots, the more inflexible they became. Especially in cases of people like the board member who was an inveterate hoarder. His board member status served as a cover for his gradually filling plot after plot with junk. 

“Snaps“ to these snaps! ‘Rocket Red’ (left side of the bouquet) is the author’s favorite annual.

He was a good-hearted person who truly liked to be helpful to other people—and I felt for him, because he seemed powerless over his illness—but the garbage accumulation was really hard to deal with. When the board finally started to present him with a timetable of “This plot has to be cleaned up by x date, and this other plot has to be cleaned by x date (repeat several times over) or you have to leave,” I was ending my service on the board. Selfishly, I was relieved, because I knew the situation that had come to a boil was going to scald people, and it did. I did very much admire the tenacity of the board president and the board in seeing things through … as I jumped ship.     

Being on the board, I learned about how many long-term squabbles neighboring gardeners were carrying on (if you weren’t on the board, you’d be blissfully unaware.) 

Based on observing those dramas, I can offer some specific advice on how to be a good community garden member: 

  • Keep your fence lines extra clean of weeds, as a courtesy to your neighbors.
  • Research plants first so you don’t plant something invasive that everyone has to deal with for years to come.
  • If you can’t keep up with your plot, ask the board for help rather than letting things get really overgrown. 
  • Don’t build berms that are five feet high at their apex and provide a den for rats. If your garden neighbors say they are seeing rats, don’t deny their reality. 
  • Don’t leave the community hoses on when you leave, flooding your neighbors’ gardens. One wouldn’t think this would need to be said. 
  • Leave your adorable dog at home. 
  • Don’t install an industrial metal fence that is so tall it makes your plot look like a mini penitentiary. 
  • Don’t camp out or get drunk in your plot. 
  • Most importantly, never, never join the board. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

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Story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy of Coldwater Pond Nursery

When third-generation nurseryman and plant propagator Ted Hildebrant was ready to open his own nursery in the early 1990s, land in his native New Jersey was too expensive. A friend  living in Wayne County encouraged him to have a look at the more affordable farmland for sale in the Finger Lakes. 

Ted Hildebrant and Elly Keyel of Coldwater Pond Nursery

“My goal at that point was to be a bare root tree grower,” Ted says, “so I spent hours upon hours walking the farms with my shovel, digging holes to evaluate the soil. In so many places, the ground was stony—not fit for field-grown trees.” At the last farm he visited on his third scouting trip to the Finger Lakes, Ted found his land-match in Phelps in Ontario County. The property possessed an ideal, mostly stone-free sandy loam, a large pond for irrigation, and several barns in good shape. 

This would be Coldwater Pond Nursery, with a twist: one of the buildings was an operating poultry barn, and Ted accepted the seller’s offer to include the poultry business in the transaction. This decision would prove personally fruitful for Ted. Fourteen years ago, he hired Elly Keyel to help with the poultry barn; after a year and a half, Ted and Elly became partners in business and life. 

As the nursery sales grew steadily over the years, Ted and Elly eventually let the poultry enterprise go. “It was nice to have the year-round cash-flow of that business to help build the nursery, and we liked working with the chicks, but it was very labor-intensive, and the margin of profit was slim,” Ted says.  

The nursery’s business model has morphed in other ways over time. Today, Coldwater Pond Nursery is about 50 percent contract propagation—grafting scions onto rootstocks to sell to other growers—and about 50 percent producing rare and unusual plants for retail sale, mostly at farmer’s markets and garden show plant sales. (Ted and Elly travel to sell plants and give talks in Buffalo, Rochester, and Ithaca, as well as in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.) 

“It’s still on my mind to explore bare root tree field production of trees we graft ourselves, for the municipal market especially,” Ted says. “In the East and even just in New York, there are so few growers offering bare root.” There are few woody plant propagators as well—most propagation happens on the West Coast, especially in Oregon, where growing conditions are ideal for plants. That’s a change that’s happened over time; it used to be that there were lots of people doing grafting east of the Mississippi. “There’s only a handful of us now,” Ted says.

• • •

A striking dwarf hemlock cultivar, Tsuga canadensis ‘Moon Frost’, gets only 2 to 4 feet tall and wide.
Aesculus x carnea ‘O’Neill Red’ is a round-headed, more compact form of horsechestnut, maturing to a maximum of 35 feet tall and 25 feet wide.
This shrubby St. John’s wort cultivar (Hypericum prolificum ‘Sunburst’) produces a stunning flower attractive to bees and butterflies.

Often folks mistakenly assume that nurserymen and women have quiet winter months. The grafting work that Ted does with Elly’s assistance makes for busy winter and early spring months (ideally, most grafting in the Northeast is done when the scion is dormant, and the rootstock is just breaking dormancy). In reality, Ted and Elly have a few light weeks to rest in September and December, but the rest of the year’s work is full-bore, dawn to dusk. Ted does the general business management and oversees the propagation side, while Elly assists with sales and general plant care like potting and pruning—and she does the critical scion preparation for Ted. 

The latter involves removing needles or branches to get a clear area to do the graft. If it’s a deciduous scion, Elly will ensure cleanliness by wiping down the stem with alcohol to sterilize it. After Ted does the graft (there are four major grafting techniques to employ) and secures the graft union with a rubber band, Elly coats the graft union with a mixture of beeswax and paraffin then labels the plants and carries trays to benches. Ted and Elly joke that “I just sit and graft and she does everything else,” says Ted. After Elly, his preferred companion in the endeavor is classical music on WXXI out of Rochester.  

Coldwater Pond Nursery sells custom grafted material to states from Georgia and Tennessee, east to Connecticut and west to Ohio and Indiana. They fulfill small wholesale orders for a wide variety of customers, but they are also doing grafting for major institutions like the U.S. National Arboretum and Longwood Gardens. 

Most of the grafted cultivars are rare or unusual ones that customers can’t readily find elsewhere; Ted and Elly are currently propagating close to 2000 different cultivars. They add to the diversity of the collection in various ways. “Nurseries and collectors generously grant us access to collect scion wood from their nursery stock and gardens,” Ted says. “For instance, there’s a fellow on Martha’s Vineyard who is always amazing us by coming up with cultivars we’ve never heard of, and he mails us the scion wood. I would say half of our new scion wood we go and collect, and the other half is sent to us. We’ve collected, with permission, from nearly every major arboretum on the East Coast.” Coldwater Pond Nursery also maintains an extensive collection of parent plants in their own nursery from which scions and cuttings are collected.

Collecting trips aren’t always glamorous. In February, Ted and Elly traveled to a collection in Connecticut where they had a day and a half to collect scion wood from sun up to sun down. It rained heavily the whole time. “We drove all that way, though, so we had to just deal with it,” Ted says. 

Their host later took them to a highly regarded wholesale nursery on the coast, where the group had a chance to talk plants and exchange numerous propagation pointers. “It was the most wonderful four hours of our winter,” Ted says. That kind of camaraderie is important, because, as Ted says, “No matter how confident I get, or how much expertise I acquire, plant propagation is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Much like with farming, there are so many things that can go wrong, so many variables that are beyond our control.” 

• • •

This heavily variegated upright Japanese maple, Acer sieboldianum ‘Kumoi Nishiki’, has beautiful orange and red fall foliage.
Young grafted Japanese maples thriving in one of the nursery’s greenhouses.

How might the business model for Coldwater Pond Nursery change yet again? “We’ve started to dabble in propagating pre-bonsai trees for the bonsai market,” Ted says. “We’d like to do more of that, and we’d also like to do tree peony production using a special kind of grafting—but that’s a ways down the road.”

Regardless of the form the tree takes, its cultivar, or its means of propagation, Ted and Elly want their plants to be alive and thriving 200 years in the future. “That thought guides us in everything we do,” says Ted. “We are conscious of making sure the root structure is the best, the trees are planted at proper depth, and the trees, shrubs, and perennials get the healthiest start to life we can give them.” 

Recently, Ted and Elly had the opportunity to secure the genetic future of a mature, beloved community tree. Before the old copper beech tree near the Pittsford library had to come down in 2018, Ted and Elly collected 200 scion wood cuttings to ensure that they’d have well over the 100 clone trees the Village of Pittsford asked for. They ended up with 150 or so successfully grafted copper beech trees that are now 6 to 8 feet tall and will eventually be distributed around the Village. 

Folks are welcome to visit the nursery by appointment; weekdays are generally best. Every year the plant propagation class from Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) comes to the nursery to get an introduction to grafting and tour the facilities—four heated greenhouses where propagation and liner production is done, and seven unheated cold frames for growing container stock. A video of Ted instructing FLCC students can be found on YouTube.

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

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by Michelle Sutton

Carol Ann Harlos and Lyn Chimera have been frequent almanac co-writers in Upstate Gardeners’ Journal since 2008. Each lives in Erie County.

“The lupines are a mixture of some I grew indoors from seed anad two I received as presents. Baby lupines are adorable! I was afraid I would step on them or weed them out, so I put metal cloches over them until they got bigger. I know they are a short-lived perennial, so one day I will have to repeat the process.” Photo by Carol Ann Harlos

Did you grow up gardening with family? If not, when did it grab you?

Harlos: I had no interest in gardening when I was growing up. However, when I majored in in biology in college, that opened my eyes to the plant world. I taught biology for five years before taking time off for my children. That’s when the gardening bug really got hold of me. I did projects with our three daughters, growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers. I was hooked!

Chimera: My family had two conservation farms growing up, so I developed an appreciation for nature, which led to my interest in native plants. Our family gardening was planting trees and putting in ponds for wildlife, although we always had a few tomato plants and my mother loved her small perennial garden. Gardening really grabbed me when I was married and had a place of my own. I was struggling to be successful and learning through my mistakes as we all do.

How did you meet each other and become co-writers of the UGJ almanac?

Chimera: Carol Ann was my mentor when I first became a Master Gardener in 2005. We were Hotline partners; I learned so much from her and still do. We share a love of nature, insects, and learning. She also encouraged me to write, which I had always wanted to do but was afraid to try. For the almanac, generally I do a draft and then Carol Ann adds to it and we work it out together over email.

Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) in Chimera’s garden. Photo by Lyn Chimera

How has UGJ influenced you over the years?

Harlos: I’ve been reading UGJ for a long time. I frequently take copies of the magazine with me when I give talks because the information is timely, entertaining, and informative.

Chimera: Like many people, I picked up the first issue free at some gardening event. I was impressed with the quality of the information and the fact that it was local. It was the first garden magazine I subscribed to and honestly I can’t even remember how long ago it was. Over the years I have learned to rely on it to keep abreast of what is happening in our region.

What other publications do you write for?

Harlos: I write a monthly column for Forever Young, which is Western New York’s oldest and only full-color senior publication, with both print (40,000 copies a month) and online editions. [You can see several dozen of Carol Ann’s Forever Young columns by searching her name at buffalospree.com.] I’m also a frequent contributor to The Herbarist and The Essential Herbal magazines; Iwrite a monthly newsletter for Herb Gardeners of the Niagara Frontier; and I’m the editor and a writer for the monthly Erie County Master Gardener News. One of these days I hope to compile my writings into a book.

Chimera: In addition to UGJ, I write for After 50, Figure 8 (the Federated Garden Club publication), the Erie County Master Gardener News, and monthly garden tips for clients and people on my mailing list.

Snapshot from Chimera’s garden. Photo by Lyn Chimera

Apart from writing, what do you enjoy doing most?

Harlos: I love, love to teach! I am a backyard beekeeper and do many talks on bees as well as herbs, insects, plant diseases, autumn gardening, bulbs, downsizing the garden, living with deer, garden botany, garden Rx, garden ideas for the classroom, houseplants, hydrangeas, making more plants, pollinator gardens, and tillandsias. I love giving talks (not lectures!) because there is so much joy interacting with people. I have a great time and so do my audiences. I go anywhere I am asked because it is so much fun. I have given talks out-of-state several times.

Chimera: After retiring from teaching I became a Master Gardener (MG). Working the Hotline was and still is my favorite part of being an MG. In doing that, I saw how many people had garden-related questions and just needed some guidance, so I started a garden consulting business called Lessons from Nature (lessonsfromnature.biz). Basically, I make house calls and coach folks on everything from groundcover and weed ID to pruning, always stressing an ecological approach … helping people realize gardening is a natural process, not a battle.

Another part of my business is giving presentations to groups, which I love. Once a teacher always a teacher. I specialize in native plants and ecological and sustainable approaches to gardening but have more than twenty topics and am always developing new ones based on requests. I also teach for MG programs and present at Plantasia and other gardening events, usually within the WNY area.

In your own gardens, what are your passions and priorities?

Harlos: I am a generalist. I want to grow everything, so I end up planting vegetables in between perennials and annuals. I love working in the garden and hearing and seeing honeybees (which I swear are mine) and other pollinators buzzing about and going from flower to flower. I also feed birds (nine feeders).

Chimera: My goal in gardening is always supporting nature. I have more than 100 varieties of native plants in my little half-acre village lot. However, I have many nonnatives that are productive as well, so I’m not a total natives snob. Not using pesticides or herbicides is one of the best and easiest ways we can help nature. My gardens have been chemical-free for about twenty-five years—and the results are amazing.

What are your favorite horticulture resources?  

Harlos: I favor the writings of Sally Cunningham, who taught me and encouraged me to give talks. I love A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger, The Secret Life of Plants by Tompkins and Bird, and Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs by William Harlow, my go-to book for identification since college.

Chimera: Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy was a real eye-opener for me as to the importance of planting to support beneficial insects, the basis of the food chain for birds and other creatures.

Another favorite is The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. You will never look at a tree in the same way again after reading this book.

Harlos’s garden in the fall, including fruitful crabapple tree in background, rose bush, pineapple sage, dahlias, papyrus, and more. Photo by Carol Ann Harlos

Who are your favorite local, regional, national, or international horticulture personalities?

Harlos: Sally Cunningham, Jane L. Taylor, Eleanor Perenyi, Fredrick Law Olmsted, and Tracy DiSabato-Aust.

Chimera: Locally, Sally Cunningham has been a mentor and does so much to educate the public about gardening and good horticultural practices. On a national level, Doug Tallamy is always wonderful.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Harlos: I also love growing indoor plants, plant propagation, seed starting, growing orchids (I have only fifteen to date), and hydroponics (aerogardens).

Chimera: I have enjoyed writing the almanac for UGJ. It keeps me on my toes and makes me more aware of what I should be doing when.

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

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