Nellie Davis

Fall 1997

By Jane Lamb

“The garden is for health of mind, body and soul,” says Nellie Davis, who has been nurturing all three in her Lornell (for “The Lord and Nellie”) Gardens at Bean’s Corner in North Jay for almost 25 years.

For the body she recommends the exercise gardening demands and the nutritional advantages of organically-grown vegetables. For the soul, Nellie maintains a constantly changing tapestry of flowers in bloom, for herself and for passersby. “It’s exciting to be able to work in a pretty place,” she says, “and to be healthy, you need to do something for the world. A lot of people have told me, time and time again, how much they enjoy going by here.”

And for the mind, Nellie points out one of her many experiments. “I’m always trying something different. That’s to stimulate the mind,” she says. “I don’t like slugs in my lettuce. Everybody knows slugs love lettuce, but they don’t like to crawl over anything rough, and we’ve been wondering what will deter them.” She and her husband, Albert, decided to try baby chick wire for roughness, underlaid with a mulch of paper (“An old roll of blank newsprint someone sold me at a yard sale.”) to keep down the weeds, all held down with lengths of pipe on either side. Lettuce seedlings were tucked into holes in the paper in May. By late June no slugs had attacked. Organic methods of growing make Nellie’s gardens nutrients until they’re needed for lush plant growth

Guru of Tips and Tidbits

Nellie’s name may be familiar to gleaners of MOF&G “Tips and Tidbits,” to which she is a frequent contributor. One of the most visible is the use of glass gallon jugs, which squat everywhere in her garden, reflecting the weather patterns passing overhead and arousing considerable curiosity. With the bottoms cut out (For instructions, see page 12, MOF&G, April, 1992; for spectacular results with broccoli and annuals, see page 36, MOF&G Fairbook Issue, 1993), they are highly effective as cloches, under which she sets out broccoli seedlings as early as March, squash in late April. “Come down here and look at my squashes,” she invites, with mixed pride and reservation. Usually by the first of June, she explains, she has winter squashes running about three feet, but this chilly year they were just a sturdy foot tall, still way ahead of any sown late and unprotected. “In early May, when it was wicked cold and they expected a freeze, I even put a styrofoam cup over the tiny seedling, then the jug on that, so they survived. Squashes aren’t that good unless they’re really ripe,” she adds, noting the short growing season in the western Maine foothills. “So I struggle, not to be smart or beat anybody, just trying to do the best I can for myself, and I’m always willing to tell everybody what I do and why I do it.”

Nellie plants her carrots in neat little rows, six to a raised bed. She starts by making furrows with the narrow edge of a board. She’s devised another of her tricks for easy and thrifty sowing of carrot seeds, an Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer shaker with the holes enlarged just enough to get a fine, well-controlled stream of the pesky little things. This makes thinning and weeding much more manageable. (See Page 15, MOF&G, March/April 1994.) Instead of covering the seeds with soil – hers is heavy clay – she uses vermiculite or sand, so the seedlings germinate easily. She has also found vermiculite to be the ideal storage medium for carrots, which she grows in large numbers and begins eating after the first thinning. Those harvested in August and packed in vermiculite keep well into early winter, and the fall harvest keeps even longer. “Before I started storing carrots in vermiculite, they didn’t last until Thanksgiving,” Nellie says.

One of Nellie’s most recent discoveries is a way to edge her flower beds that keeps grass and flowers in their separate realms and makes mowing easy. (See Page 34, MOF&G March-May, 1997 for photo and diagram.) It all started with her frustration with the edging sold commercially, which is only a vertical barrier. Strips of aluminum left over from a roofing job caught her inventive eye and she came up with a plan for an inverted L shape, one leg pushed a good 6 inches into the ground at the edge of the flower bed to prevent the invasion of grass, the other leg extending over the lawn on the surface. Flowers can spill partially onto the aluminum band, but a mower wheel can roll closely along it as well for a neat trim. Luckily, the roofer was still on the site and obligingly bent the strips for her.

An Island of Super Soil

Not that there’s much grass to mow in Nellie’s garden. Every inch of the Davis’s big yard is in beds of vegetables and flowers, “European style,” she says. A minimal lawn around the house that narrows to a strip of turf around nearby flower beds is as much as she allows. Most of the raised beds are divided by weedless pathways of sawdust or shavings, traded with friends for plants. When it gets old and decayed, Nellie puts it into the beds and replaces it with a fresh lot. “I have terribly heavy clay soil,” she points out. “Over the years it has become a lot better. Then I use fish fertilizer I buy from FEDCO.” Compost, which she and Al make in small piles using “everything but meat,” and which they don’t bother to turn, is probably the most important ingredient in her rich soil.

As with every aspect of her gardening experience, Nellie has a story to tell about compost. A next door neighbor, now deceased, offered her some extra space in his garden. “I enjoyed talking and gardening with him and said ‘Yes, I’d like to plant some more stringbeans.’ My beans were about a foot away from his. He had about 5 percent germination and I had about 95 percent. I tell you, I felt kind of embarrassed. But the thing of it was, he didn’t use compost. He didn’t put anything in to help his soil, which was as bad and heavy as mine. I also put some manure in the furrow and kept it watered.” The neighbor’s untreated soil was very wet in spring, which he attributed to the runoff from the next neighbor up the hill. Nellie’s answer was that she had that water and his as well. “But my garden is an island. I have a ditch here, another ditch over there. I mulch, too. He finally decided mulch was a good thing. He didn’t want to copy any old lady, you know, but he found out those things were working.”

An especially deep ditch, almost a moat, guards the uphill side of a big, flower-covered mound in the center of Nellie’s garden. “I had a nice little garden all ready for winter about six years ago,” she relates, “and the septic system didn’t work. Come to find out it was just a small hole in the ground and it was against the law to dig it out. We had to have a new septic system put in, so this hill is my septic system.” Much of her garden, lovingly built over many years, was destroyed, but Nellie took it as a challenge. “I know why it happened,” she says. “The Lord wanted me to have a beautiful garden there. [The contractors] told me to plant grass or flowers. I wasn’t going to plant grass to mow, so I stuck to flowers. It cost me $8,000 to have that mound built. They had to bring in a lot of soil. But it actually makes it prettier from the other side.”

At first the steep bank on the back side kept sliding into the ditch and filling it with sand. But Nellie knew she needed the ditch for drainage. “My husband had an operation that summer and couldn’t help me. I was digging the sand and shoveling water. Did you ever shovel water? It’s a dreadful job and the sand kept coming down.” She solved the problem by planting the whole bank with pulmonaria, which usually prefers the shade but thrives here in full sun, along with whole flocks of hens and chickens. Together they hold the bank in place. Seen from the road, the raised mound is a season-long display that starts with a burst of early spring bulbs, daffodils, narcissus, tulips and great bands of deep purple dwarf iris and pink creeping phlox. Lilies, tall bearded iris, lupines and a profusion of clematis and peonies follow. Blue spires of delphinium dominate the host of multicolored midsummer blossoms, and the season winds up with a blaze of orange and bronze gloriosa daisies, crimson phlox and golden calendulas. Nellie cuts back the first crop of calendulas in August when they begin to look seedy, and they answer with a fresh second flowering that glows until heavy frost.

Surprisingly, Nellie’s garden has no roses. Perhaps because of the richness of the soil, they were too rampant, defying even aluminum barriers. “Nothing stopped them, so I stopped them by selling them,” she declares with satisfaction. But total elimination is not her usual goal. “Divide and conquer,” she says with a laugh. “I have iris everywhere. Last year I cut 300 stalks of iris. I’ve been dividing them and spreading them out. A lot of people buy them. When they come to see the garden (Four hundred people signed her guest book one year, 300 is average.), if I have something extra, I sell it, but I don’t go out and raise things to sell.”

Growing a Customized Diet

It’s hard to believe that the frail-looking but well tanned woman, whose dark eyes sparkle under her broad-brimmed hat and who speaks with a firm, youthful voice, has created this garden almost single-handedly. Her husband, now 83, had little time or energy to help her while he worked full time, and suffered from poor health for many years afterwards. “Fortunately, he fell and hurt his shoulder a couple of years ago,” Nellie says pointedly, pausing for shock value, then goes on, “Fortunate because it was really torn and he had to do a lot of physical therapy. With all the exercise his chest and arms became stronger and his health has improved overall. We’ve been studying alternative healing and now he’s becoming a fulltime gardener.”

What is even more surprising is that Nellie herself has never enjoyed good health. Plagued by allergies that until recently required her to wear a mask much of the time in the garden, and others that limit her diet considerably, she made a career of finding what’s best for her and growing lots of what she can eat. “I want everything as organic as I can get it. I’ve been reading a lot about trace minerals, so several years ago, before it got to be the rage, I began getting trace minerals from FEDCO. It’s common sense if you want to have minerals in your carrots, they’ve got to be in the soil.” She doesn’t grow potatoes, tomatoes or other members of the nightshade family. She also avoids spinach, swiss chard and beet greens, which contain oxalic acid, the component that is so concentrated in rhubarb leaves that the latter should not be eaten.

For greens she makes the most of dandelions, rounding them up from all the neighbor’s lawns and canning and freezing as many as 50 quarts some years. “When you’ve got something that’s beautiful and don’t use it, it surprises me,” Nellie says. As for the complaint of bitterness, she offers the usual advice about picking dandelions young and discarding several cooking waters. “It’s wise to get used to a little bit of bitter because the Lord gave us all these senses for our taste. If we don’t get a little bit of each of the flavors, we don’t feel satisfied.

Parsnips and salsify and burdock are among her favorite vegetables. “Burdock is one of the cancer cures. It’s very healing,” she notes. She raises burdock from seed (See Page 29, MOF&G March-May, 1996) and prepares the roots by scraping them, chopping them and putting them in the blender. She cooks the puree and puts it in ice cube trays. “When I make soupy I’ve got dandelion broth, burdock root and salsify.”

The Davises are originally from New Hampshire, where Al worked for many years. They came to Jay 25 years ago when the heating and plumbing business he worked for moved here. Nellie started gardening when they were first married, during the Depression. “When he was laid off, things got real bad. We put in a garden right off. I didn’t know much about it at the time,” she recalls, “but I’ve been learning all the time. The more I learn, the more I know, the more there is to learn.” Nellie’s grandmother, in Lithuania, was the town herbalist. “One time my father was at my house and when he looked at my garden his eyes popped out. ‘Do you know what you’ve got there?’ ‘Yes. I planted it.’ ‘I used to pick that for my mother!’ He was so excited.” Nellie began studying herbs and learned that bees loved them. She has only a few now, because she’s so allergic to strong-scented things.

“I love every facet of nature,” Nellie says.”We pick a lot of wild mushrooms in the fall, but we don’t do too much with the others [in other seasons]. We’re too busy in the garden. I like this flower bed where the bird bath is. The dianthus will be all pink, and in the middle all yellow evening primrose. That’s a sight! I work here almost day and night, but we live so far from all our friends and relatives that it’s a good thing we’ve got something to keep us happy. And I have all these people who come back every year to see me in the garden. That’s what makes life interesting.”

Jane Lamb, formerly of Brunswick, Maine, is now retired in California.

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