Corrections or additions?

This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the

April 25, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Guiding the Garden State

Who would you rather not be during planting season

in the "Garden State"? Only if you crave instant expert status

or, like Pegi Ballister-Howells, you earned it the hard way, would

you want to be the author of "New Jersey Gardener’s Guide,"

called the "what, where, when, how and why of gardening in New

Jersey."

That’s a lot to live up to, but Ballister-Howells does it, and loves

doing so, she says. To a visitor who has already overstayed her

welcome

at "Blooming Acres," the author’s 10-acre home-farm in East

Windsor, Ballister-Howells laughingly agrees that most people treat

her the same way they might treat doctors, except the discussion is

more public: perfect strangers describe their symptoms and ask

questions,

hoping for free advice.

The nice thing is they get it — in person, in print, or on the

air. A woman who once wanted to be a veterinarian, Ballister-Howells

took a graduate school course in ecology, and that experience,

concurrent

with her first veggie garden, changed her life. She switched majors

to horticulture, and it could accurately be said she "dug into

a whole new field" and never looked back. Now she spreads the

horticultural word via TV and radio, newspaper columns and periodical

articles, besides through her book — a proven perennial itself.

Published in 1998, the "Gardener’s Guide" is aimed at New

Jersey gardeners of all stripes, beginners to advanced. Everything

in it, trees through ornamental grasses, vines through annuals, will

grow anywhere in the state where the basic conditions — like sandy

soil or shade — are found. And that’s saying something, since

New Jersey encompasses a long spread from the tip of Sussex County

to the tip of Cape May, with significant altitude differences too.

The familiar frustration of discovering a "must-have" plant,

bush, or tree, only to learn you can’t grow it here, won’t happen

with Ballister-Howells’ book, where each chapter includes both

dependable

and more unusual possibilities.

Although there’s always something new in annuals, perennials, and

even colors — consider the new, relatively muted-yellow forsythia

— the "Guide" is a detailed basic, a "backbone."

About this time each year, as New Jerseyans start thinking seriously

about gardens, it becomes a must-have reference. Ballister-Howells

will talk about the Garden State’s gardens and her book at Barnes

& Noble, MarketFair on Thursday, April 26, at 7 p.m.

A bonus: the book’s not just smart, it’s pretty too. Printed in green

on ivory paper, it’s an easy-to-use guide. A center section on white

glossy paper trimmed with a red stripe is a "photographic gallery

of featured plants." Not sure what a hosta looks like, though

you seem to have heard the name all your life? Look in the perennial

section of the gallery and there they are: you would recognize those

leaves anywhere. The format for each entry in some 14 chapters is

identical, so readers can use the book easily.

For each plant, the common and scientific names come first, followed

by a box with specifics on other names, size specifics, kinds of

flowers,

bloom period, zones where it can grow, and light requirement. Then

a healthy overview paragraph or two, invariably well-written.

"When,

where, and how to plant" follow bold face headings, and "care

and maintenance," "additional information," and

"additional

species, cultivars, or varieties" wind it up. That next-to-last

section, by the way, often offers little nuggets of good reading:

see "impatiens," in the chapter on annuals, for some appealing

background and a well-chosen literary allusion.

Ballister-Howells, born in Newark in the mid-1950s, says she just

did not realize until graduate school and her switch to horticulture

how much she already knew about plant life. Her father had been a

produce merchant, and as the youngest of eight children in the family,

Pegi assimilated information she took for granted at the time,

assuming

everybody knew the same things she did: what grew when and where;

how to buy; how to prepare.

In many ways, her family farm, "Blooming Acres,"

is a tremendous illustration of both her expertise and her commitment

to gardening and growing. On 4 of its 10 acres, there is a great range

of ornamental and vegetable gardening going on, as well as a number

of animals that add to the allure — one each: donkey, sheep,

turkey,

pig; four goats; 20 chickens; three guinea hens. Three dogs and two

house cats compete the cast of co-inhabitants with Ballister-Howells,

her husband, Tom Costantino, a computer system network manager with

Merrill Lynch, and their children, eight-year-old "Teejay"

and seven-year-old Kira.

Though an observer must wonder where the time comes from, the couple

does most of the home gardening themselves, with much of the long

Easter weekend devoted to cutting back, clearing out, and adding wood

chips — which they get by the truckload. By summertime, besides

what sound like stunning flowers of all kinds, heirloom tomatoes,

and 15 different kinds of eggplant will be in the works.

Ballister-Howells

lavishes praise on the soil here; it’s great, she says, for potatoes,

carrots, and root crops generally, for all of them demand the best

soil.

A walk around "Blooming Acres" yields an inventory of growing

things, many of which flourish year-round. In a corner grove, varied

pussy willows are grouped, some with wonderfully contorted trunks

and branches. Their curls and knots are wholly sculptural and perfect

for "winter interest" — a chapter in Ballister-Howells’s

"Guide." "Paperbark" birches and other trees, a young

white magnolia tree in full flower, and hardy kiwi vines dominating

a wire fence are just a few other elements. Roadside beds feature

plants of different heights, colors, and blooming times, with, for

instance, myriad daylilies succeeding myriad daffodils, and perennial

sunflowers, tall and thickly clustered: "showstoppers,"

Ballister-Howells

calls them. This year’s plans call for a long row of giant red

hibiscus

to be the first thing visitors encounter.

Of course, the plethora of growing things continues indoors, where

Ballister-Howells has grouped any number of house plants at windows

and on counters all over. She’s not inclined toward heroic measures

to maintain them, though, having already surrendered one or two

toothsome

specimens to the cats, who leave the rest alone. And she says of all

houseplants — including the Christmas-season poinsettias that

some people make a vocation of keeping alive, though never again the

same — "Keep them as long as they give you joy, and when they

stop bringing you more joy than pain, chuck them."

From herbs and bamboo to slugs and Japanese beetle traps,

Ballister-Howells’s

store of knowledge is seemingly bottomless. Herbs, which she says

don’t hold up well, are best grown at home and used fresh, as needed.

An added incentive is that when they flower, they attract bees —

always a good thing. Bamboo sometimes gets a generalized bad rap as

an invasive plant, capable of unseating houses. Choose it very, very

carefully, she advises, and stick to "clump bamboo" —

an innocent relative. She says traps for Japanese beetles are best

only "if you have a large property," because they do in fact

attract the beetles to begin with. With enough space, though, traps

can draw the insects away from ornamentals. As for slugs — what

can we really say after "why?" — "malt does more than

Milton" or pesticides can, so sink beery vessels in the garden

and be prepared to bury the beastly drowned plant predators.

About watering anything in the garden, Ballister-Howells suggests

training the roots to grow down and seek water below, instead of

reaching

up. To do so, water deeply and infrequently, maybe every four days

or once a week. This way, roots are removed from the surface, where

they will dry out and die in hot weather unless they’re watered

shallowly

and too often — and encouraged to stay there. The same goes for

grass: water deeply and let it follow its natural inclination and

turn brown in hot weather. It will come back.

Starting with a master’s degree in horticulture from Rutgers (on top

of her bachelor’s in biology), Ballister-Howells has built a notable

niche in the field. Her experience as a county agricultural agent,

professor, and marketing consultant — as well as her continuing

roles as TV and radio host, writer and photographer, have all

familiarized

Ballister-Howells with the FAQs in her field.

First, she says, "Start small. Succeed at that level, rather than

failing big." And second, spend time with your garden when

nothing’s

wrong; know what things look like when they’re healthy. It happens

all the time, she says: people see a thing they never noticed before,

and they think something’s wrong! Work to spot problems early, she

says, because "If you can spot it on a dead run with a bag of

groceries, it’s too late."

Looking ahead — well past the current growing season, for sure

— Ballister-Howells may start on her second book, a history of

agriculture in New Jersey. Besides an overview, it would focus on

the state’s key crops, like blueberries and tomatoes, and use

anecdotes

as possible to foster readability. Her spur-of-the moment description

of Elizabeth White’s work to create the state’s blueberry industry

whets a listener’s appetite — for such a book and, it must be

said, for blueberry pie.

Pegi Ballister-Howells writes, and talks, with such an easy air of

expertise, you may feel like running in 20 different directions after

reading or talking with her. Everything sounds so reasonable and

do-able,

you want to hurry up and put it all into practice to prove to her

you that you can do it too, and with her seeming effortlessness.

That’s

the very best time to practice her advice: start small.

— Pat Summers

Pegi Ballister-Howells, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,

609-897-9250. A talk by the author of "New Jersey Gardener’s

Guide."

Thursday, April 26, 7 p.m.

She also appears at Barnes & Noble on Route 1 South, North Brunswick

(732-545-7966) Saturday, April 28, 2 p.m.


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