f e a t u r e s - g a r d e n s
Lessons from a Traditionalist Gardener
Whether it was the influence of those who had lived before him or the discovery of shards of pottery and Civil War artifacts he found while digging in the gardens, James Cramer has embraced a life based on traditions of the past
Perhaps his dream of living in the country was influenced by his great-grandmother’s World War II Victory Garden turned self-sustaining vegetable farm. It took up the entire yard behind her white farmhouse where James Cramer spent the first fifteen years of his life. He wrote in his book, The Gardens & Accoutrements of James Cramer, “It is said that you are impressionable the first years of your life and now I see where my love of gardening came from. I realize that the things I do now all came from my growing up years – even canning. I realize as I get older how important that time with my great-grandmother was and how it has shaped me as an adult . “
Thirty years ago James went in search of recreating that special feeling he so loved from his childhood. As happenstance may have it, he found himself on a country road on the outskirts of a small town in western Maryland looking at a ‘for sale’ sign. It was the old log smokehouse and the summer kitchen to the 19th century brick clad log farm house that initially caught his attention. He’d come to learn that it had once been the centerpiece of a 240 acre family farm that abutted the Civil War’s Antietam Battlefield. This one little acre, house and outbuildings were owned by the same family that had lived there when the Civil War had been fought right next door.
James used his collection of French cloches to give his spring plants an early head start by keeping them warm under the glass domes. Conversely, they prolong the life of late fall vegetables acting as mini in-ground green houses. He used to make his own cloches by taking old glass vases, turning them upside down and gluing knobs to the bases with an epoxy.
James’ collection of antique tools are used regularly and stored in the greenhouse. The French styled curtains hang from within the greenhouse door to let the cool summer breezes in and keep the hot summer sun out.
James christened the home “Seven Gates”, after the gates that separated the series of newly created garden rooms. The gardens evolved into the foundation of his life and then became the base of his career. James, an author and a magazine editor and garden stylist for Country Living, Cottage Living and Country Home magazines, found inspiration there for his work and was able to use them as his creative base.
Along with the passion for country life came his love of everything old. His garden shed filled with antique gardening tools, implements and containers used by gardeners of yesteryear, most of which he
has used in cultivating his own gardens. Initially he bought them for props and photo shoots, but his fascination of cloches and terracotta seed starter pots grew to include beekeeper’s hats, potting tables, urns and much more. Before he knew it, James’ inventory was so big that he had to start an antiques business in nearby Hagerstown specializing in garden tools and accessories to handle the overflow.
Thinking the shop was the answer to help pare down his collection, he found the opposite was true. It only enabled him to rotate out no longer used items to be replaced by other wonderful finds he’d discover.
How to preserve plants & bulbs from season to season.
James, as a traditionalist, starts his seeds in small terracotta seed starter pots in the warmth of his greenhouse in the winter. When the weather warms in the spring and he feels the urge to get a head start on the growing season (and he simply wants to get outside), he’ll use the cloches, the clear glass bells that are placed over the seedlings. When the sun warms them during the day, they keep the ground and seedlings warm, acting as individual green houses.
Summer: Pot geraniums in urns, pots and window boxes around the garden and house. If you’d like, plant them in some beds.
To winter: Dig them up and hang them upside down for the winter. The greenery falls off but once they are back in the ground come spring, they’ll grow prolifically.
Summer: Dahlias do well in garden beds or a cutting garden. They bloom from mid-summer to first frost.
To winter: Dig up bulbs and keep a stem length of about 18” to 24”. Store them upside down or in dry wood shavings. Dahlias are tubers so the new spouting plants can be separated off and planted anew.
“Plant after the first frost – Dig up before the last frost.”
left: geraniums are winterized by hanging the plants upside down to dry. The dahlias and orchids bulbs and tubars are stored in wood shavings or straw to keep them dry.
Saving Seeds From Flowers
James saves seeds from his green and white zinnias, white marigolds, larkspur and Queen Anne’s lace.
1- Pick the heads of the flowers after blooming drying them on a screen rack.
2. After they are dried, store them in glass jars
3. Around March to April, pull the heads apart and plant the seeds in seed trays and set near a warm, sunlit filled window or, if you have one, a greenhouse
4. When the seedlings are 2”- 3” high, replant them in small pots
5. After the first frost, plant them in the ground
Hint: Instead of small pots, use old egg cartons to start seeds. Fill them with potting soil and plant the seeds. When they are about 4” high, cut the egg carton apart and put the plants directly in the ground.
Favorite Seed Catalogs: