Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Gus and Taylor Ramsey and their three children have grown a garden that pretty much takes up their entire front yard. The couple stand in the garden with their children: Ava Ramsey, 10, Alia Ramsey, 8, and Roscoe Moulton, 4. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal  Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — The corn in Gus Ramsey’s garden has grown high this summer, easily pushing 12 feet by the end of August. Everything else in there looks robust and plentiful, as well, enough so that the Ramsey family has been able to share the wealth. 

“We were getting like 15 to 20 cucumbers every two days,” Gus says. “It’s awesome because we were able to go see all our neighbors on this street and give them some.” 

What’s different about this garden? Well, for one thing, it was planted in the Ramseys’ front yard where one expects to see nothing but neatly mown lawn. The garden forms a wedge from the front of the house to the edge of the road, a sight so unusual and so cool, people take drives to the street just to see it. 

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Alia Ramsey, 8, gives her 4-year-old brother, Roscoe Moulton, a push as Moulton drives his motorized tractor around their yard in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal  Buy this Photo

Gus calls the curb at the front of his house his “raised bed.”

“This is our first full summer here,” Gus says. “We don’t get sun out back, so my wife was nice enough to let me put a garden in out front.” 

On this quiet stretch of Dimsdale Street in Lewiston, just beyond the edge of downtown Lewiston, the Ramseys are growing enough to keep them in vegetables through the winter. There are impressively large cucumbers, plump red tomatoes, zucchini, squash, pumpkins and some tomatillos Gus’ wife, Taylor, uses to make salsa.

Another thing that’s different about this spread: Gus Ramsey is not any kind of lifelong gardener. He’s an electrician by trade but decided one day that a garden might be a good thing for his family and set about teaching himself. 

“I learned by watching YouTube videos or reading books,” Gus says. “I keep learning year after year. There’s some stuff I’m better at growing and there are things that I still need to learn. I try to grow something new every year.”

Gus may not have started out a gardener, but his two daughters, 8-year-old Alia and 10-year-old Ava, are getting that advantage. With schools closed and most activities canceled due to coronavirus, the girls have had plenty of time to pitch in. 

“They help and I teach them all about this stuff,” Gus says. “Hopefully when they get older, they can pass it on, too.” 

Gus also gets help from his 4-year-old stepson, Roscoe. And don’t go scoffing that a kid that age is to young and small to make any significant contribution. 

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Sisters Alia, left, and Ava Ramsey pick a tomato from their Lewiston garden. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Oh, he absolutely helps,” Gus insists. “He’s got a John Deere power tractor and rips all over the yard with it. He’s always asking if there are any jobs to do.” 

When you get right down to it, little Roscoe sure picked the right time to get involved. This spring and summer saw a kind of explosion of gardening, not just in Maine but nationwide, spawned in large part by the frustrations and fears brought on by COVID-19. 

When the pandemic first got rolling, there were food shortages and concerns that it might get worse. There were also kids stuck at home with nothing to do and nothing to keep their young minds occupied. 

Gardens hit on both problems, and in city after city, town after town, people were making time and space to plant and grow. 

SUSIE COLE AND A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC 

It’s harvest time at Susie Cole’s gardens in Turner. Submitted photo

On North Parish Road in Turner, Susie Cole had seven kids running around bored and restless as half the world seemed to close due to the virus. Susie’s solution was to get them involved in gardening, turning the process into something that is half chore, half adventure. 

“We have converted an old chicken coop into The Magic Tree House — our lockdown project — and have a secret garden behind it where they pretend to jump through an old mirror and have adventures!” Susie explains. “We have perennial beds and herbs, both of which get harvested and dried for teas. And of course an ever-growing veggie garden that the kids love to harvest, eating their weight in cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and blueberries. It’s a humble

Some of Susie Cole’s winter store plucked from her gardens in Turner. Mark LaFlamme/Sun Journal

garden but joyful!” 

It may be humble, but it’s also an ever-evolving project. 

“The perennial beds are a year old, the secret garden two years old, the corn and pumpkin garden new this year and the veggie garden is about four years old,” Susie says. “We just put in a poly house and cleared brush to a creek so we could put in a fairy garden. The kids all made houses last month — but that is a work in progress.” 

And it’s not just gardening the children are learning about, but preserving the food that they’ve grown, as well. Susie has been teaching them the process of turning vegetables into sauce and canning for what they call their “winter store.” 

With her small army of young workers, ranging in age from 1 to 16 years old, Susie has things under control out there on North Parish Road. Yet like other gardeners, old hands and newbies alike, Susie was all to aware of the various shortages that came along with COVID. Seeds were in short supply, in part because there was a mad rush to get them, but also due to the fact that many seed distributors were forced to reduce their hours or close down. 

Harper,7, is one of seven kids who are learning to preserve food harvested after a summer of gardening at Susie Cole’s home in Turner. Submitted photo

But anyone who gardens knows that half the work involves finding solutions to the various problems that arise along the way. 

“Thankfully I am a ‘seed saver’ and network with a few other people,” Susie says. “I had trouble finding purple top turnip and kale mostly. Seed saving has been taking off in recent years.” 

By the end of summer, the family garden out on North Parish Road was producing enough to feed 13 people. But the garden provides something even greater, Susie believes, than cucumbers and tomatoes. Especially where the kids are concerned. 

“I feel strongly,” she says, “that children should be taught about the connection they have to the food they eat; know how to grow, preserve, conserve and share their food; know that when they buy a pepper in the store, how much work someone put into it. Our children here battle the squash beetles, the aphids, the Japanese beetles, lack of rain or nutrients right alongside us. They make a trip to the garden to harvest daily, rain or shine, and help rescue any wayward bumblebees. They see the chicken and bunny waste go into the garden in the fall and see the ‘promise’ in the spring seedlings they plant.  

“Gardening is more than just growing something useful or pretty,” Susie continues, “it’s about being connected to the earth and the source of life in a real and tangible way. It is wonderful to see how being ‘stuck at home’ has inspired so many new gardeners to sink a shovel, turn a plot of soil and toss their worries and time into the air with a handful of seeds.” 

MASON PARKS’ GREEN THUMB 

Mason Parks tends to his backyard garden in Lewiston. Mark LaFlamme/Sun Journal

Back in Lewiston, sixth-grader Mason Parks is brand new to the gardening game. In a typical year, he would have spent the summer months playing video games or attending a school program. But there’s been nothing typical about this summer and there were empty hours that needed filling. 

Mason, with the help of his parents and an aunt, began his very first garden in his backyard, transforming a four-by-four box that was already there into a raised bed. 

He’s just a kid trying to feel his way around the complexities of maintaining plants, but by the end of August, his garden was flourishing. 

“I’ve got tomatoes,” he said. “I’ve got these big peppers and there’s icicle short top radish.” 

Holding a portable sprayer in one hand, a fat green tomato in the other, Mason looks over his garden with a sense of accomplishment. 

“I’ve got a green thumb,” he says. 

Mason himself didn’t have any trouble finding seeds when growing season began. Stops at Home Depot and Lowe’s with his aunt were enough to secure everything he needed, in fact. 

Now he’s out in the garden every day, looking to see if there is rot or any plants that appear parched. Although his garden is small in comparison to some, he’s developed a feel for what plants need and for how to best approach any issues that arise. 

He plans to garden every summer from now on, does Mason. He’s also interested in learning to can his vegetables and preserve them in other ways. 

THE ECLECTIC MICHELLE BERUBE 

When COVID-19 came along and changed the rules to just about everything, Michelle Berube adapted. 

That’s nothing new or strange, though. When it comes to gardening, adapting is what she does best. The sprawling gardens in front of, behind and alongside her Park Avenue home in Auburn is a testament to her skills and inventive nature. 

Pumpkins and a whole lot of other things are ready to be harvested from Michelle Berube’s gardens in Auburn. Mark LaFlamme/Sun Journal

Check out the fencing made of old crib sides, for instance. The solar pool cover transformed into a roof for a greenhouse Michelle built just this year.  In her gardens are hammock frames, bundles of wire, ratty old blankets and a whole bunch of other things most people would have deemed useless and tossed out. 

“There is not a thing in this garden,” Michelle says, “that is not repurposed.” 

You might be tempted to think that an old-hand like Michelle doesn’t belong in a story about people turning to gardening due to changing times. She’s a veteran, after all, who at one time was producing 95 percent of the food her family consumed. 

But when COVID came along just as planting season was getting started, Michelle became aware of the various shortages, particularly those involving seeds and canning accessories, such as jars and lids. 

She didn’t suffer much from the shortages, personally, so she turned her attention to helping those who weren’t as well-equipped. 

“I had tons and tons and tons of seeds,” she says. “So I planted what I wanted and then put out a little free library. It wasn’t much — it was just a big plastic Rubbermaid container that I wrote ‘free books and seeds’ on.” 

The free seed library on Park Avenue was a hit, as it turned out. Some people were desperate for seed due to the shortages. Others were just looking for a kind of give-and-take. 

“People were coming and coming,” Michelle says. “They were taking stuff and they were leaving stuff. It was pretty cool.” 

The seed shortage also inspired her to plant some of her older seeds, which had technically expired more than a decade ago. 

A veteran gardener, Michelle Berube had so many seeds she shared them with other gardeners in a free seed “library.” Mark LaFlamme/Sun Journal

The results were rather comical. 

“So I planted a ton of those seeds and they didn’t look like they were doing anything, so I planted more seeds,” Michelle explains. “So now I got carrots I just noticed have finally sprouted and they were probably the first seeds I put in. For most people, you plant your carrots, and then you plant your beets or whatever. But I’d plant my beets and nothing would be happening. And I’d be like, well, I’ll plant some lettuce here. And then all of a sudden, I’ve got beets coming up where I forgot I even planted them because the seeds were so old I just assumed they were no good.” 

Plants of several varieties all growing in the same spot: that, too, is kind of a mark of Michelle’s essential character. 

“Everything I do is eclectic,” she says, “and jerry-rigged. . . . I love my gardens. I’m proud of how crazy they are this year.” 

The COVID-19 madness has benefited her in at least one way — one of her sons, an 11-year-old, suddenly found himself with not much going on this summer, thanks to the virus. 

“I had a lot more help gardening this year,” she says, “because  my kid was home.” 

JOAN GAUTHIER AND GARDEN MEDITATION 

Flowers and statuary highlight Joan Gauthier’s gardens in Lewiston. Mark LaFlamme/Sun Journal

Like Ramsey, Cole, Parks and Berube, Joan Gauthier has spent her recent days harvesting and preserving. 

“I’ve been canning the veggies I picked this morning,” says Joan, wiping sweat off her forehead while standing behind her Barron Avenue, Lewiston, home.  

Also like most of the others, Joan evaded big problems from the seed shortages earlier in the year because she collects seeds from her plants and trades with others. 

Joan has several gardens in her yard, thanks to her talented and helpful husband, who continues to carve up more space from time to time. It’s not easy work maintaining so many gardens, especially for a woman who has had three knee replacements. 

“I’m not going to say it’s not work. It is quite a bit of work,” Joan says. “Most of the time, I

The trellis is just one part of Joan Gauthier’s gardens in Lewiston. Mark LaFlamme/Sun Journal

come out here twice a day. This morning I was out here at 7 o’clock, digging holes for the two new plants I got yesterday.” 

Joan has so many plants and flowers in such scattered locations, she needs to maintain a chart to keep track of it all. There is a little bit of everything out here: sage, cone flowers, white daises, pink polka dots, cushion spurge, dianthus, black-eyed Susans, clematis vines, begonias, Shasta daisies and a special kind of weed to attract butterflies, to name but a few. 

A lot of work indeed, but in a world gone mad, for Joan, it’s a labor of love. 

“It keeps it keeps my mind going,” she says. “It keeps me active. And while I’m doing all this, I have no problems. I don’t think of any thing else. There’s always something to do. As long as I’m in the shade and it’s not 90 degrees out, I love it. And I’m walking. I’m doing a lot of walking back and forth, back and forth, so it’s good exercise at the same time.” 

‘A LOVE OF GARDENING BROUGHT A FEW OF US TOGETHER’

You can see her point. Who, after all, would deny that since the year 2020 came along with its wild varieties of chaos, every one of us could use a little something to clear our minds and preserve our sanity? 

Gardens have sprung up all over the place this summer, including a few right in the center of downtown Lewiston. Some folks have turned to planting because they fear the store shelves will go bare. Others do it to keep the kids occupied, while a few say that gardening keeps them connected to simpler times that seem to be slipping away. 

A path to Susie Cole’s gardens in Turner. Submitted photo

The Facebook group “Our Victory Gardens” sprung up in April and has blossomed into a small but active community of local gardeners — some veterans, but many absolutely new to the scene. 

“COVID-19 isolation was/is HARD,” says Jennifer Gendron Carleton, one of the group administrators. “A love of gardening brought a few of us together.” 

Linda Doucette Scott, of Lewiston, created the group with the so-called victory gardens in mind, an idea that originally sprung up around both world wars when regular people began planting in their yards, in public parks — anywhere they could find space, really — to both supplement food rations and boost morale.

You get a sense of both those things in Scott’s Facebook group, where veteran gardeners offer to mentor those who are just starting out. The group also discusses growing tips, canning, pickling, dehydrating, fermenting and all aspects of food growth and preservation.

Scott herself has been gardening for many years and these days also cans her vegetables or turns them into sauces, jellies and relishes.

She’s also a history buff, as it happens, and when coronavirus came along, she started thinking about the days of those victory gardens and how much they meant to a suffering people.

“I think people felt helpless at the beginning of the virus,” she says. “‘What are we going to do? Where are we going?’ And I thought this would be something we could do in our community to get people excited about gardening. With victory gardens, we can share our produce, we can share our knowledge and we can also learn about canning and preserving our food, and we’re helping ourselves in the long run.”

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Sisters Alia, left, and Ava Ramsey pick a tomato from their Lewiston garden. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Gardening in Maine is not easy. Scott acknowledges that. But there perhaps has never been a more important time to do it, as the mess of COVID-19 lingers and uncertainty hangs over us all.

“Gardening is not only good for you as far as the hobby,” Scott says. “It’s good for your family. It’s healthy food. You save money at the grocery store, and with a virus out there, maybe you don’t have to go to the grocery store at all.”

She’s got a point. By the start of September, the “Our Victory Gardens” page was alive with photos from people boasting about what they’d grown, what they were canning, what they were eating straight out of the garden. They were also sharing tips on preservation, on seed collection, on planning next year’s garden so it’s even more healthy and bountiful.

Food production, knowledge and self-sufficiency, these are the concepts the local gardeners are embracing. And when you get right down to it, has there ever been a more important time for each of these things?

Susie Cole’s gardens in Turner produce enough food, including this purple cabbage, to feed 13 people. Submitted photo


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.