How does his garden grow?

Irwin Richman observes a crop of bluebells that ornament his property near Marietta. (Suzette Wenger / Staff)

Ask Irwin Richman why he loves gardening so much and he'll crack a joke.

"Because I am a masochist. Every gardener has to be. Things happen."

Indeed, things are happening all over Lancaster County. But since planting season has just begun, they are mostly good things.

Richman, 75, a retired professor of American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg, got interested in gardening when he was a kid in Brooklyn. His interest only intensified when he moved to Lancaster County in 1972.

He and his wife, Susan, own a home in Bainbridge on five acres of land. His wife grows vegetables, especially tomatoes from Landis Valley's heirloom seed project. Richman, who helps run the project, prefers flowers.

"I'm a useless ornamental person," he jokes.

The author of a number of books about Pennsylvania German life, including "Pennsylvania German Farms, Gardens and Seeds," and "Seed Art: The Package Made Me Buy It," Richman will be signing books at the Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum's Herb and Garden Faire, which is open Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

And while you're there, you might have some questions for this expert gardener. Here are some of ours.

1. What should people be doing in their gardens right now?

Now is the time to have beds prepared for putting in summer annuals. It's also time for putting in tender vegetables. Plants like tomatoes don't really like to be pushed. If you want to garden and do it successfully, May is the time to plant.

2. What are the essentials to successful gardening?

You've got to understand your garden and how much sun it gets. And you have to understand what kind of soil you have. There are soil kits that can test the pH of your soil, though for the most part, Lancaster County is limestone based. If you have those two things firmly in mind, you're on your way.

There is so much good soil here. Even many of the housing developments are built on what was formerly farmland, so more people have better soil than in a lot of areas.

3. What's the biggest mistake people make?

Early on, the biggest mistake is over-planting. That's especially true when it comes to landscaping. You see this cute little bush that looks beautiful and in 10 years it's a monster and you're fighting with it.

No matter how devoted you are, you are going to have failures. Years ago, I decided to get a certificate in ornamental plants from Longwood Gardens and I discovered they have their mistakes, too. One of the great secrets is to be merciless. If it's not doing well, get rid of it.

4. You can spend a lot of money on garden supplies. What do you really need beyond the plants?

You can get a nice garden with relatively few of the bells and whistles. You might want to add some fertilizer. Another important feature is weed suppression. I am not philosophically an organic gardener but I am philosophically opposed to dealing with more poison than is absolutely needed. So, in my own gardening I weed a fair amount and use light amounts of mulching. And there are materials you can put under your mulch - woven plastic - which can be used for several years to suppress weeds.

5. Why are you so interested in gardening?

I was a freaky kid. I grew up in Brooklyn and (everyone) called me Nature Boy, after the hit song. My grandmother had a garden behind her house and I loved planting things.

There is something about this relationship with the ground, being able to envision ways of enhancing nature, that is really quite exciting.

I pride myself in planting 1,000 bulbs every fall. Last year, I envisioned a bluebell glade. Just now, the glade has come into full bloom and the results are even better than I imagined. When things like that happen, being a gardener can't be any better.

jholahan@lnpnews.com

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