Gardening with dad

By KIM COWHERD/Horticulture Extension Agent Published:

Today is Father’s Day!


Many of us grew up learning to garden alongside our fathers or grandfathers. My love of and fascination with plants began on Clover Drive in Frankfort in a large vegetable garden and a long, narrow flowerbed filled to the brim with all types of flowering plants.


My favorite photo of me as a small child is in that flower garden with a huge, purple allium towering over me. Later, in different gardens on Lee Drive, I learned about orchids, greenhouses, cold frames, planting peas and asparagus, and scoured catalogs and nurseries for any plant that was the most unusual that could be found.


On a farm in Bridgeport and a large garden on Murray Street, I learned how to set tobacco, grow tomatoes, and manage pastures.


I became a horticulturist alongside my dad, Harry Cowherd, and my grandpa, P.B. Cowherd, many years before I trekked to college to earn that degree.


Some of you probably have similar stories about learning to love plants from your dads, grandpas or other men in your life.

Mary Lynn Collins, Extension Master Gardener, shared her special memories with me about learning to garden alongside her dad, the late John M. Adams. I hope you enjoy reading her story and hope that all dads that are reading this are helping to create gardening memories with your children!


Mary Lynn’s memories
I think a lot about my father, who died on Father’s Day 10 years ago. But it is in spring when I am trudging back and forth in my garden with the garden tools that were his that I think the most about my father and how grateful I am that he passed on to me his passion for gardening.


Some of my earliest memories are playing in our yard under spirea and bridal wreath shrubs and peach trees and helping my father plant white half runner beans. I remember my father’s beautiful red climbing roses and his clumps of red tulips that bloomed year after year.


I still remember the variety of those tulips – General Eisenhower, a Darwin hybrid. My father often had a vegetable garden somewhere on our street. Our neighbors often offered up space, knowing he would grow enough for several families.


My father also grew native plants including azaleas, rhododendron, and white trillium. He had three varieties of clematis, various perennials, and several types of viburnum.  He grew enough mums for the whole neighborhood. He always had the large brick planter that was attached to the front or our house filled with scarlet sage, ageratum, or other eye-catching annuals.


 I am one of three girls. But as the three of us became adults, I was the daughter that shared my father’s passion for gardening. As a young mother, I grew a large vegetable garden. And at that point, my father and I began a relationship that only gardeners can know.


Regular consultations
I regularly consulted my father as I planned and planted and my father always sent me home after a visit with plants from his yard or vegetables that he had started from seed. He often came and planted for me his larger gifts from his yard such as dogwood trees, birch trees, and a Carolina sweet shrub.


For a time, it was a very one-sided deal, but I soon began sharing with him plants from my garden – and the knowledge I was gaining from each gardening season.


I remember the first plant I shared with him. When it was time to divide Shasta daisies, I presented to my father, with great satisfaction, at least a dozen plants.  Those daisies became one of his favorites because of their long blooming period. He kept those daisies growing until he and my mother moved to an apartment.


I learned so much from my father about gardening. He taught me that when landscaping to plant in odd numbers; he taught me the value of mulching, deadheading, and pinching certain flowers to keep them from getting straggly. He taught me how to extend my garden investment through a variety of plant propagation methods, and he taught me to pull up poorly performing plants since gardeners never have enough garden space.


It was with great pride that I became the keeper of my father’s gardening tools: an old watering bucket, a wonderful small “English” shovel, a large handmade dibble, a small dispenser for tiny seeds, a knife that works well for dividing small plants, and an army-issue container where he kept his seeds and detailed garden records.


My father and I talked a lot about plants, gardens we had visited and new plants featured in our garden catalogues. We exchanged information about plants and garden products, what worked for us and what did not.


My father’s gifts
Today, my yard is filled with my father’s gifts: white birch trees, acuba shrubs; wild geraniums and primroses that my father originally transplanted from my Aunt Hazel’s yard in Whitesburg; and lamb’s ears that originally came from my Aunt Lucy in Alabama.


I have a hedge of highbush cranberry viburnum from my father’s yard as well as dogwoods, redbuds, sedum, hosta, ferns, and a Carolina sweet shrub that he planted in my yard when we first moved to our present home.


I have my father’s peonies, some white and some pink, that have moved with me from house to house and that I hope to gift my children, nieces, and grandchildren as part of their heritage.


When my parents moved to an apartment, my father found himself limited to growing plants in pots. I still remember one sunny day when my mother and I sat on the balcony while he carefully rigged, with great pleasure, a string trellis for his one cucumber plant.

When my father died, I cut loads of my father’s flowers from my garden and asked a local florist to arrange them. My sisters directed all other flowers delivered to the church for the funeral service to the reception area, and the flowers from my garden were the only flowers in the sanctuary where the service was held.


And before the burial service, I had buds of the Carolina Sweet Shrub tucked in my father’s pocket. He would have so liked that.

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