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Cultivating Beauty:Devoted Centre County gardeners share a passion for growing – and giving

by on September 02, 2020 5:02 PM

Centre County is known for its natural beauty, found in the forests and wild places that surround us. Local gardeners know how to tame the region’s vegetation, cultivate it, and create gardens that are expressions of the individual, and together celebrate the resources we all share.

The generous gardener

Jan Musser grew up in the city of Wilkes-Barre with a backyard of blacktop. Today, her backyard on the border of Autumnwood Park in State College is a local landmark, brimming with an abundance of flowers.

“[Growing up], my grandfather lived a block away, and he was first-generation European, and in Europe, they have very small yards, but they make use of them,” says Musser. “They don’t plant grass – they plant gardens. My grandfather’s backyard was heaven. It had every kind of fruit tree, every flower – as many as he could pack in the yard.”  

After school as a child, Musser would join her grandfather in the garden.

“I give all my credit to my grandfather, who taught me every plant, every tree, every everything about plants,” Musser says. “I was his tree climber, who climbed up the tree and threw down the apples, and he would catch them and put them in the baskets.”

Musser and her husband sold their 13-acre farmette in State College and when they moved to their current home, the property had ornamental trees, but no flowers.

“I said, ‘Well this is great – a blank canvas,’” Musser says. “So I proceeded to make my five-year plan: Because of aging, I wanted to get everything in the ground within five years, and then in case I couldn’t garden anymore, I could enjoy it. I’ve been here 10 years this year, and I can’t even begin to stop.”

Musser is a generous gardener, planting for pollinators and for people. She says she “is gardening for nature,” filling her garden with pollinator plants, bird-feeding stations, and food for hummingbirds.

“Because there’s a walking path right by my house, there are a lot of people constantly [coming by],” Musser says. “I thought, ‘There are hundreds of people a week walking – I need to make this pretty.’ It’s just became so much fun. People walk, and I’ll be out weeding or tending the garden, and they say, ‘Thank you so much for these flowers! It’s so nice to walk past them. I look forward to this every morning and every evening, and I love to see what’s growing.’ And so that really touched my heart, thinking people are enjoying my labor. I love doing it, but I’m doing it for my community, for my neighbors, and the thank-yous I get from them has made it so worthwhile.”

Musser says a man down the street who had recently suffered a heart attack was told by his doctor he had to walk. The man told Musser he makes her garden his destination and thanked her for making it such a lovely one.

Musser has had a section of her yard certified by the North American Butterfly Association; the process involved following guidelines of planting every plant needed to accommodate butterflies that live in the area and sending pictures of the garden.

“I researched what I needed for the butterflies we get here, and I made sure I had those plants in the garden, and not just plants to look pretty – plants the butterflies lay their eggs on, that’s called the ‘host plant,’ and then the plants they eat after the eggs develop and turn into butterflies,” Musser says.

Her next goal is to create a public butterfly garden beside her property “that people can enjoy, and I can teach people the wonders of flowers.”

Musser’s advice for would-be gardeners is: “Start small. Buy plants you like and plant them according to plant directions. Water them, feed them, and watch them grow. If a plant fails to survive, plant something else. But don’t give up. Gardening is trial and error, and that’s what makes you a good gardener.”

Fertile blacktop

The soil of Andy Mitchell Sr.’s garden in downtown Philipsburg is so rich and black, it almost blends in with the blacktop that surrounds it. 

“It’s a curiosity piece, for sure,” Mitchell says of his plot in the blacktop, burgeoning with neat rows of fragrant vegetable plants, immaculately maintained.

Mitchell says he became interested in gardening because of his Italian heritage.

“I’ve always been into Italian cuisine and I’ve always known how to cook Italian, so I figured what the hell,” Mitchell says.

His first foray into horticulture involved San Marzano tomatoes, which Mitchell says are “not your garden-variety tomatoes,” but are the “best sauce-tomatoes in the world.”

“I started growing those buggers, and they just wouldn’t stop growing,” Mitchell says.

Now, Mitchell’s garden is full of hybrid super Marzanos, peppers, oregano, and a poblano pepper that is nearly the size of a tree.

The growth of the garden is a testament to Mitchell’s time, dedication, and hard work.

“This is a live-in garden pretty much,” Mitchell says. “It’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner out here.”

Mitchell has built his own arbor-type device to provide shade on the barren lot, though a solitary telephone pole does block a little sunlight.

“It’s like a sun dial,” says Mitchell. “You can see the shadow go across the garden all day, so you can pretty much tell the time by it.”

The little parcel where Mitchell grows his delectable produce was once the site of a stable that fell down. 

“It took John (a friend and neighbor) and me at least five years to get all the rocks cleared out of here,” Mitchell says. “Now, there isn’t a rock to be found, and we used to joke about them growing back every year, because we’d go back in there and dig them out again. We used to get out the big old crowbar, and we’d be back in there wearing ourselves out.”

Though he says he has to rejuvenate the soil constantly, Mitchell’s hobby is more relaxing these days.  

“I can’t think of anything that’s better therapy for anybody,” he says. “There’s quite a bit of creativity involved with [gardening]. You get to do your thing, but basically, the plants do their thing, and you get to see things grow, and it’s very positive. I’ve been other things in my life, but I never knew I’d be so into gardening until I started it, and it just started growing on me, and now it’s practically my whole life.”

Mitchell says growing things – much of which he gives away – is a way to honor several relatives who have passed away.

“Every boy in the family, pretty much, has gone on to bigger and better things,” says Mitchell. “So I do it as kind of a memorial to them. I figure, if I keep it going, I sort of keep the memory alive.”

Verdant on Val Verda

Fran Nuhfer, Hetty Seigfried, and Nancy Stewart are members of the Ferguson Township Garden Club. They’re also friends, neighbors, and the original “influencers.”

Nuhfer’s garden makes a cheerful greeting for people driving into the Ramblewood Development on the outskirts of State College. A farmer’s daughter, Nuhfer says she was “born to play in the dirt.” She has a corner lot she cares for lovingly, keeping the public, who sees both her front and rear yard, in mind.

“I try to have a three-season garden with something blooming from spring through autumn,” Nuhfer says. “In the spring there are winter aconite, snowdrops, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, and hellebores. In late May and early June, there are the alliums, and in July, the daylilies and annuals are blooming. Native plants are now blooming. I also plant zinnias each summer. Later, the asters will be blooming.”

Nuhfer’s backyard, with its grand stand of old oak trees casting cooling shade, is a calming contrast to the cheery, colorful, and sunny front yard. Both are artful displays for passersby, one of whom, years ago, was Seigfried.

Nuhfer recalls, “Hetty was working at the time, too, and she would come by and look at my garden and say, ‘I’m going to have a garden like this when I retire.’”

For many years, Seigfried was a summer camp director.

“I would enjoy [Fran’s] flowers,” Seigfried says, “because you can’t garden when you live at summer camp.”

Now that she’s retired, Seigfried has been a woman of her word, transforming her backyard, just down the street on Val Verda Drive, into a pollinator’s paradise. It’s a busy place, with bees, birds, and butterflies buzzing all around, sipping sweet nectar and enjoying the vivid bounty.

“I love to garden and to be outside, and I love birds and bugs and nature, so through the years, after I left camp, I started with a little garden back here and then added, and then you get sort of addicted to it, and then you look at Fran’s garden and you want more, and you look at Nancy’s garden, and you want some of that!” Seigfried says. 

Seigfried calls herself the “econogardener,” because, “I like to grow most things from seed, and I like to save seeds from year to year.”

As a camp director at Camp Kanesatake, Seigfried would conduct seed programs for kids “to show them God’s provision for next year … and how in plants and insects and birds, you see God’s infinite creation.”

Wandering through Seigfried’s gardens, the ladies of Val Verda Drive discuss how their plants are doing this year, how many caterpillars, butterflies, and hummingbirds they’ve seen, and what kind. There’s a recurring theme in all the gardens: that of gift-giving.

“This, Nancy gave me,” Seigfried says, and, “Fran gave me this. A friend from garden club gave me this plant.”

“I don’t think you bought anything here, did you?” Stewart remarks at one point.

And so it is in Stewart’s garden, too, just next door. Some of Nuhfer’s dahlias add variety to the space that was obviously designed by someone with an eye for style.

“I was an interior designer for many years,” Stewart explains. “So I think a lot about curb appeal. I like to have beauty everywhere.”

Stewart’s garden is imaginative: There’s a little garden by the mailbox, flowers by the front door, and a shade garden of hostas and ferns artfully arranged under the deck in the backyard.

There are also marigolds, roses, a mix of herbs, and 43-year-old peonies Stewart and her husband transplanted when they first moved into their home and didn’t have a lot of extra money.

“I like color, lots of color,” says Stewart. “I like to do things for pollinators, and I buy and plant what I like to look at. Every year, I find something else I want to grow.”

Stewart’s garden makes a statement and has been motivational. The Stewarts were out of town when Seigfried was planting her dahlia bed on the border of their properties this spring. Seigfried looked at Stewart’s yard and couldn’t bring herself to leave a row of black pipes exposed.

“I have this neighbor who has this wonderful yard, and I got my dahlia bed dug, and I planted like 24 dahlias, and I put these iron pipes in, and I stepped back and looked at it, and I thought, ‘That is so ugly!,’ Seigfried says. “I thought, ‘I can’t do that to Nancy.’ So I got outdoor fabric to make pole covers, and my granddaughters helped me sew them. It was a fun project.”

“We enjoy each other’s gardens,” she adds with a smile.

Shades of green

Steve Wheeler’s home in the Stonehenge Development of Bellefonte is, in mid-August, a study in subtlety. His landscaped yard is full of various kinds of trees, shrubs, and other plants whose varying green hues are an artist’s dream. 

His front yard is home to Japanese maples, an ornamental pear tree, boxwoods, native cactus, and sweet little “mouse ears” – to name just a few residents. His backyard is something of a workshop, with neatly organized cuttings and trimmings Wheeler is in the process of propagating arranged in pots and planters amongst serene pathways.

“Both my parents were interested in gardening,” Wheeler says. “When I got married and had a house, I got interested in gardening, and one thing led to another, and I got interested in propagation.”

Propagating is the process of growing new plants from a part of an old plant. In one area of his garden, Wheeler, who belongs to the Bellefonte and Ferguson Garden Clubs, points out a plant he propagated “from cuttings from Fran [Nuhfer’s] house.” Later, he notes a clump of hosta, which he says is known as “the friendship plant,” because it is traditionally shared among gardeners.

“I like the idea of propagation,” Wheeler says, “because I like that you have a plant and then you end up with two or three or whatever, and you can give some to your friends.”

One can’t help but conclude that if we all shared more of what we had, like gardeners do, the world would blossom into one big, beautiful garden.

 

Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.

 

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