"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need," said Marcus Tullius Cicero.
No one knows this better than Lori Robbins-Murphy. When she's not sharing personalized book recommendations with patrons at Richland Library Blythewood or giving gardening advice to her lucky co-workers, the librarian assistant spends her free time taking care of her bountiful garden. I sat down with Lori to get a better understanding of how her near-to-her-heart hobby came to fruition.
What drew you to gardening?
My dad was a gardener and it was just a way to be with him. It’s always fun getting dirty— I mean why not? I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t gardening.
What are your favorite things to plant?
Well, it depends on when you ask me because years ago it was very important for me to make a vegetable garden, plant fruit trees, and berry bushes, but now I enjoy flowers. I like to grow stuff nobody else has; a lot of times people don’t do it because it’s too hard to grow, but I always feel I have to try. My worst are artichokes— I can’t grow them. Artichokes would be the pinnacle because they are also beautiful flowers, but if you don’t let them flower you can eat them.
How long does it take to grow artichokes?
Two years. The first year it becomes a beautiful plant and then it dies back to the ground. The next year it’ll come up again when it has more energy and produces flowers.
What plants would you recommend for first-time planters?
It depends on whether they want flowers, trees, or food. Zinnias, sunflowers, and four o’clocks are very easy. You really have to work to kill them. As far as vegetables go, peas are very easy, and so are cucumbers and tomatoes. Some things are easy, but you have to know when to plant them. If you plant okra when you plant everything else in the spring, it won’t do anything because the soil for okra has to be at a very high temperature for it to sprout and thrive. Most vegetable plants go into the garden in late April, okra needs to wait until at least June.
Do you recommend planting in containers, raised garden beds, or in the ground?
It depends on what you’re growing, if you want to spend a lot of time on it, and what your situation is. If you're just planting vegetables, you should put them in the ground and water them. At my house, I plant in the ground, in raised beds, and containers. The containers are the hardest because in the summertime you have to water them before you leave and after you come home from work. That's one of the things I like most about gardening; I like to hand water, make sure they get well soaked.
Are there any big stores you like buying plants from?
Reese’s Plants is where I like to get my plants. The reason I don’t shop from the big box stores, even though I’m often tempted, is because they use neonicotinoids as part of the growing process and that kills bees. I don’t know why they still do that. You would think with all the information about colony collapse and bees dying they wouldn’t put it out there.
For farm plants, I like to go to Sal’s Ol' Timey Feed and Seed. This woman has a farm and she sells any kind of plant you want to put in your garden. If you want specific heirloom tomatoes, Sals probably got them. She also sells compost she makes herself.
What was your April carry-out kit? What seeds did you include?
To get kids interested in gardening you have to give them something simple with pretty outstanding results, otherwise, they won’t find it fun. So I went to Sals and got Royal Burgundy beans, which are pretty easy to grow. These beans grow a deep purple, but when you cook them they turn green. I thought that would get them to eat their vegetables! The flowers on a bean vine are pretty, and they bring in the bees.
If they wanted flowers, we got Zinnias because they grow quickly, they’re pretty, and they don’t take over (become invasive). Four o'clocks are very easy to grow but if you ever plant them, you’re going to have them for the rest of your life on that piece of property because each seed will germinate, grow and spread. Just like mint.
Another one [I included] was dragon tongue bean. They look how you would imagine a dragon’s tongue would look. I ate some for the first time and they taste just like regular green beans, but if you want to get kids interested, dragon tongue beans are the jackpot!
Are there any gardening books that helped you along the way?
I remember exclusively not reading any fiction at all for years and just checking out gardening books. Every single one that we have here I can tell you about. But they’re a couple I've bought myself because they are good reference books to have at home.
If you weren’t a librarian, would you be a professional gardener or landscaper?
I’ve done professional landscaping and professional propagating, but plants only have a short window of time before you can get them to the nursery and have them sold. If no one's buying and your plants are ready, you’re stuck with them. I love the design of gardens, but not so much the maintenance because it’s tedious; I don’t use any chemicals, and all the weeding has to be done by hand. You also have to worry about what kind of steward you are for the land. You don’t want it so full of chemicals that five years down the line you wouldn't be able to grow anything on that piece of property because it's depleted of everything. You have to keep nature in check, you have to have a balance. Otherwise, it may be there for your children, but not for your grandchildren.
Listening to her jubilant excitement about all things gardening gave me the motivation to restart my mini-garden and care for them better. As I learned from Lori, a plant’s growth is correlated to how well you tend to them and the environment in which they sprout. If her commitment and patience towards gardening is any indication of how dedicated she is to whatever task is at hand, then working alongside her is sure to be a pleasant treat.
Want to spruce up your backyard garden? Check out the library books below for new gardening tips and ideas.