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
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
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
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,
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
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
bloom period, zones where it can grow, and light requirement. Then
a healthy overview paragraph or two, invariably well-written.
where, and how to plant" follow bold face headings, and "care
and maintenance," "additional information," and
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,
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,
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.
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
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,"
calls them. This year’s plans call for a long row of giant red
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
the very best time to practice her advice: start small.
— Pat Summers
609-897-9250. A talk by the author of "New Jersey Gardener’s
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.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.