It was a lucky day for the Historical Society when in October 2018 Elaine Yang, Class of 2019 OSHS Salutatorian, said she would join the volunteers at the herb gardens. Elaine needed to earn community service hour requirements and she understood from a neighbor, a longtime resident of Old Saybrook, Mary Beth Unkrich, that the Hart House gardens could always use an extra hand. When Elaine first heard of this opportunity, she was cautious and curious and thought “I have never been exposed to anything like this before, maybe I should give it a try.”
The following is a journey between a mentor and a student during a nine month experience of giving and receiving. With not many days left in the fall gardening season Elaine Yang and I quickly went to work putting the herb gardens to bed for the winter. We harvested the last of the annual herbs for the Congregational Church’s food pantry chefs and clients, applied lime to the soil to overwinter, and planted garlic cloves for next year’s crop. The garlic not only serves as a deterrent to voles the next spring, but also adds a structural element to the overall visual impression of an herb garden bed.
Although shy by nature, Elaine was forthright in that she didn’t know much about the process of gardening, the science behind it, and the extended benefits that gardens quietly give to homes and communities. However, it was clear from the start that she was willing to learn and give it her best. I explained to Elaine that just like other disciplines many gardening practices are fairly mundane, repetitive and definitely not glamorous, but these certain tedious and systematic steps form the backbone of a beautiful, productive and successful garden.
Springtime 2019 was quickly upon us with more garden challenges to deal with due to a very wet and cold beginning which prevented us from getting into the gardens until early May. These delays proved to be challenging as school visits had already been scheduled and we wanted our gardens to look their best and tell the stories only they could tell. Little did I appreciate at the time when I was handing out ‘to-do’s’ to Elaine how very busy this young woman was with her senior year studies (which led her to her Salutatorian achievement), varsity math team meetings, 2nd Degree Black Belt Karate commitments, and flute and piano practice. It was a reminder to me that if you need a job completed, give it to a busy person. I learned very quickly that Elaine’s natural abilities allow her to learn new concepts quickly. She is a keen listener, follows instructions with precision, and asks very few but important questions. I’m not sure if Elaine studied Latin at OSHS, but ultimately I think she had fun learning a bit about plant classification and taxonomy based on the Linnaeus hierarchical system. Good stuff.
When the weather began to clear in mid-late May, we first amended our soil (based on the results of our soil test, a must for any successful garden). Elaine commented “You were always stressing the importance of a good soil, and that made an impression on me.” Then we had to apply a very important gardening skill – patience. It seems like last year’s perennials took an additional two to three weeks to rear their heads above ground level this spring due to the unusually cold spring weather. Since the Historical Society provides a guide to our herb gardens which is available to the public when touring the gardens, it is critical each year to evaluate our plant material and update our inventory to produce this guide. Simultaneously, we are informed of what plants didn’t make it through the winter – which happens, and then these plants are deleted from the inventory. Fortunately our overall head count was in good shape. Despite her very busy spring schedule Elaine stayed abreast of all of these twists and turns which nature delivers. Our next steps were to divide perennials that were creating an over-crowded environment (plants like air circulation), purchase new plants for the garden to reflect our mission of “Herbs with a Purpose” and to invigorate our inventory, to tag our garden plants, to apply an organic fertilizer to get the plants off to a good start, and to mulch. Elaine distinguished herself in every next task she attempted, and I sincerely appreciated that Elaine ‘respects the clock, rolls up her sleeves, and gets the job done.’
All the while Elaine was navigating in the Hart House gardens this spring, she
continuously asked “What more can I do to help?” I grew so confident in her abilities, trustworthiness and dedication that she occasionally worked alone to earn her hours when it was difficult to schedule times together. Singularly Elaine also made a lot of headway in the general spring garden chores in the woodland garden which I believe she really enjoyed. It was always clear to me that she didn’t come to this experience just to ‘put in her required hours’ for her community service. Elaine came to learn, and learn she did. Elaine says “It’s hard to put into words how much you can learn from a garden. Mara Beamish says it best “A garden always gives back more than it receives.”
By the end of June, Elaine realized that there is peace and tranquility in our historic Hart House gardens whether you are sitting on a bench overlooking the celebrated trees and shrubs, anotable rose garden, an espalier pear tree, a peaceful woodland/wildflower garden or digging in the healthy organic soil to create new plant life. Elaine gave the Hart House gardens a gift of her time, commitment and energy, and she in return received a gift from the Historical Society of learning lifelong skills and enjoying the memories that she will hold dear forever.
Elaine Yang will be a member of the freshman class at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ this September. We know Elaine will do Old Saybrook proud.
OSHS Herb Gardener
Advanced Master Gardener and
FGCCT Landscape Design Consultant