In honor of Earth Day, we asked Cornellians to tell us about their experiences over this past year growing gardens.

Since the start of the pandemic, a record number of people have taken advantage of their time at home to get their hands dirty and plant pandemic gardens. According to Agweek, Burpee Seed Company sold more seeds in March 2020 than in any month in their 144-year history, and Johnny’s Selected Seed recorded a 270 percent increase in spring 2020 over pre-pandemic seed sales. According to Axiom’s 2021 Gardening Insights Survey, 86 percent of last year’s home gardeners plan to continue gardening this year, and 47 percent of them said they plan to expand their gardens in the 2021 growing season.

Alumni from across the country responded to our call to “show us your plants.” These Big Red gardeners range from first-timers experimenting with starting their own seeds, to master gardeners sharing their prize-winning roses, to multi-generational farmers raising food to feed their communities, to talented chefs incorporating their harvest into mouthwatering recipes.

Please enjoy scrolling through the Cornell gardens featured below, including scenes from the garden-refuge of our vice president for Alumni Affairs and Development, Fred Van Sickle. We hope you enjoy your garden tour as much as we have!

AAD vice president Fred Van Sickle is an avid gardener.
AAD Vice President Fred Van Sickle is an avid gardener.

“I am a very focused gardener and prefer my beds to look perfect—meaning weedless. I have learned that no matter how hard I work, Mother Nature  always wins. She is much more powerful!” —Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development, Fred Van Sickle


Scroll through Fred’s garden!

Ezra’s garden: a year-round sanctuary

Chad Hall ’09 and his wife Jill (Bebee) Hall ’09 helped start the Labyrinth Community Garden near their home in Austin, TX about ten years ago. Eight years later, Ezra Hall joined the family. Chad and Jill met at Cornell, and he says that they named their son after Ezra Cornell because they loved the name.

The family spends many happy hours chilling in their backyard garden where they raise a variety of vegetables and chickens. Chad reports that two-year-old Ezra is “getting pretty good with the hand trowel.”

Raised beds
Raised beds

The Halls are grateful to their neighbors for teaching them how to negotiate the long, dry Texas summers and make the most of their state’s year-round growing season.

“The soil in Austin is mostly clay,” Chad says, “which tends to not provide enough nutrients to plants and causes water to runoff. To deal with these challenges we add layers of mulch in between plants to regulate soil temperature and conserve water, and we like to use raised beds for our produce so we can add nutrient-dense garden soil and compost,” he explains.

Each family member enjoys different aspects of gardening. Jill enjoys experimenting with ornamental succulents, which thrive in the heat and add a variety of colors and textures to the garden landscape. “Sometimes when she comes home from work, she doesn’t even come inside —she just heads straight into the garden,” Chad says.

Ezra enjoys feeding the chickens.
Ezra enjoys feeding the chickens.

Chad likes the routine of emptying the compost in the morning and of planning the family’s meals around what’s ripe in the garden.

And Ezra’s favorite thing about the garden is the chickens! The Halls have three young hens of the Red Sex Links breed. Though the hens haven’t started laying eggs yet, the family enjoys their other benefits: “They are really fun and self-reliant, and supply us with plenty of nitrogen (chicken poop) for our compost,” Chad says.

Scroll through the Hall’s garden!

Blake’s garden: a little slice of heaven

Blake Dressel ’09 says that the pandemic inspired his first foray into gardening. In spring 2020, his 95-year-old grandmother decided that it was time to let the younger generation take over the plot in a Chicago suburb where she had gardened for the past 70 years. Blake and his sisters, Amy Pritchard ’06 and Emily Hampson took charge, “under threat of a serious lack of homegrown ripe tomatoes and luscious dill pickles.”

Marie Novak, garden consultant, looks over the day’s harvest.
Marie Novak, garden consultant, looks over the day’s harvest.

It turns out that Blake has both an affinity for growing things and a natural green thumb. “Gardening was an outlet for me, in a little slice of nature, during the confinement and isolation of the lockdown,” Blake says.

Blake’s love of cooking inspired him to experiment with different varieties of vegetables, both in the garden and in the kitchen. In 2020, he planted seedlings he bought from nurseries alongside seeds sowed directly in the garden. He also planted a few varieties developed at Cornell, including the world’s first heatless Habanero pepper and Honeynut squash, both developed by assistant professor Michael Mazourek, PhD ’08, and the Marketmore cucumber, developed by renowned Cornell plant breeder Henry Munger.

One of Blake’s favorite culinary creations using his homegrown produce: Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter, and Black Prince heirloom tomatoes, burrata, and flowering basil
One of Blake’s favorite culinary creations using his homegrown produce: Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter, and Black Prince heirloom tomatoes, burrata, and flowering basil

In his professional life, Blake works in restaurant procurement, sourcing ingredients for professional chefs. He says that the experience of tasting homegrown produce has transformed his outlook on the supply chain. “Growing your own food can be better than even the best farm-to-table restaurant!” Blake says. “You can go from seed to sauté in your own backyard!” he adds.

After their abundant harvest, Blake and his garden assistant and girlfriend Maggie Baum ’11 decided to preserve their crops to last through the winter. “We enjoyed learning how to properly and safely preserve the harvest of tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and cucumbers by water bath canning and pickling,” he says.

Scroll through Blake’s garden and cooking photos! More on Instagram @blakedaviddressel.

Penny’s garden: a touch of whimsy and color

Penny Nemzer ’83, DVM ’87 says her move to Martha’s Vineyard in 2008 gave her the opportunity to design her garden beds from the ground up. She imported top soil to cover the clay base layer and let her inner artist free. At her previous home in Westchester, the gardens were symmetrical and traditional, and she welcomed the opportunity to experiment with combining annuals and perennials, incorporating native grasses, and layering different colored blooms.

“I take notes and photos of my garden each year,” Penny says, “and try to change it or improve it the following year by layering the annuals differently or moving some perennials.”

A summer day in Penny’s Martha's Vineyard garden is filled with stargazer lillies, liatris, cone flowers, and bee balm.
A summer day in Penny’s Martha’s Vineyard garden is filled with stargazer lillies, liatris, cone flowers, and bee balm.

Penny faces many challenges to maintain her beautiful flower gardens, not the least of which is her two dogs, Lilly and Katie, who like to roll among the perennials and dig up her bulbs. Her biggest nemesis are the Vineyard deer, who take every opportunity to browse on her lilies and hydrangeas. “I have played with many deer sprays and have finally gone with some deer fencing,” she says.

Watching the colors emerge in spring is one of Penny’s favorite things about gardening. She also enjoys feeding the hummingbirds, cutting and arranging flowers in vases, and container gardening. This year, Penny looks forward to taking on a new challenge: vegetable gardening.

Among its many joys, Penny says that gardening is a great time to catch up on her favorite books. “I am a huge reader and big fan of Audible audio,” she says, “and I listen to books while I garden.”

Scroll through Penny’s garden!

Rodo’s garden: desert blooms

Rodo Sofranac ’71 has been gardening in Phoenix, AZ for the past 40 years. He especially enjoys gardening alongside his wife, Susan. “Minimum words + maximum effort = complete unity of spirit,” he says.

As one would expect, Rodo has learned to sustain their garden with very little water. “Living in Phoenix requires a deep (pun intended) respect for water,” Rodo says. When he and Susan started planting, they installed a drip irrigation system and selected plants that are well adapted to the desert climate.

Rodo has also learned to share their garden freely with the bees that pollinate their plants, and the lizards, ladybugs, butterflies, and birds that visit and nest there. “Many people have commented that often times they can hear our yard,” Rodo says.

Aloe camaronii is another variety of agave. “It’s like a burst of fireworks in the typical green aloe party,” Rodo says.
Aloe camaronii is another variety of agave. “It’s like a burst of fireworks in the typical green aloe party,” Rodo says.

He adds that not all the visitors are welcome. Some of the unwanted guests include rabbits, who feed on succulents, and javelinas, who feed on nearly everything, regardless of thorns. “From ants to snakes, with plenty of scorpions between, we accept and are cautious of our residents,” he says. “They were inhabitants long before we dug a hole here,” he acknowledges.

Rodo believes that life is a “compilation of relationships,” and, for him, gardening epitomizes these interconnections. In addition to visitors from the animal kingdom, people frequently stop to admire Rodo’s garden. Since many succulents are easily propagated by breaking off a piece and replanting it, Rodo tells his visitors, “If you see something you like, let me know and I’ll break off a piece.”

After four decades of gardening, Rodo is still awed by nature. “The diversity, beauty, and generosity of plants never ceases to amaze me. In one way or another, they quench all my senses,” he says.

Scroll through Rodo’s garden!

Carolyn’s garden: the scent of spring in Salt Lake City

“Spring is definitely the best season in my garden!” says Carolyn Rider Chase ’66. Temperatures in Salt Lake City top 100 degrees in summer, and the heat takes a toll on flowering plants.

Carolyn says that she inherited many of the plantings when she moved into a historic home in Salt Lake City. Hers is one of the older homes in the city, built in 1886, and is listed on the historic register. She says that she feels like a caretaker of her property and garden. Over the past twenty years, she’s added some plants, while others have disappeared.

Carolyn’s house and garden. “I only wish I could send the scent of the hyacinths!” she says.
Carolyn’s house and garden. “I only wish I could send the scent of the hyacinths!” she says.

“When we moved here the three trees (pear, zelkova, and burr oak) were saplings and the roses were gorgeous,” Carolyn says. “Now the trees are huge and provide welcome shade in the summer, but the shade and the roots dramatically limit the roses and make it difficult to plant much of anything new,” she adds.

Carolyn says that she loves watching the garden change over time, and that working in her garden puts her “in touch with what’s real and enduring.”

Carolyn enjoys sitting on her front porch when the weather allows, enjoying her garden and the birds and squirrels who live there and greeting passersby. “It gives me something to share with others,” she says. She says that one of the highlights of the past year was gathering outdoors, with chairs spaced six feet apart, with friends. “It felt really good to share a few moments with real people and reconnect,” she says.

Scroll through Carolyn’s garden!

Seymour’s garden: a labor of love

When Dr. Seymour Rosen ’64 reached out to us, he listed the plants he has growing in the yard of his Florida home. “I have 70 rose bushes, 4 peach trees, and 12 blueberry bushes, as well as several boxwood bushes on 3/4 acre of lawn,” he wrote. “Taking care of this consumes considerable time, but it is largely a labor of love,” he added.

Seymour started growing roses about ten years ago, after visiting the rose gardens in Tallahassee, FL. He says that he also enjoys photography, and that his love of roses afforded him the opportunity to share photos of roses at local rose shows.

Growing roses in Florida can be challenging due to fungal and pest problems, but Seymour explains that there are new hearty varieties that are more resistant to these issues. “Research has revealed a class of roses, designated by the term ‘earthkind,’ that require no spraying and minimal upkeep,” Seymour says. He encourages would-be rose growers to join a local rose society so that they can gather advice and tips from experienced growers.

Scroll through Seymour’s rose garden!

Jason’s urban farm: feeding Saint Louis

Henry Isaac Arnold ’24 (top row, far right) was the Cornell men's hockey team manager.
Henry Isaac Arnold ’24 (top row, far right) was the Cornell men’s hockey team manager.

Jason Henry Arnold ’90 is a third-generation Cornellian. His father, Eugene Gibson Arnold ’64, MBA ’66, and grandfather, Henry Isaac Arnold ’24, both grew up on a farm near Canandaigua, NY, and both attended the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Jason attended the Hotel School and now helps oversee urban farm operations for the Hamilton Hospitality Group in Saint Louis, MS.

The farm operations are employee owned and consist of a hydroponic/aeroponic greenhouse, half-acre urban garden, LED growing beds, fruit trees, and beehives. These operations supply four Saint Louis restaurants with the majority of their produce, herbs, and leafy greens.

Team members take turns helping with various aspects of the farm operations. The greenhouse operation includes aeroponic tower gardens which can produce more than 2,500 plants and a hydroponic system that produces lettuce, micro greens, sprouts, and shoots. The beehives provide pollination for the group’s pear, peach, and apple trees, and the urban garden supplies seasonal produce.

“From farm to table can take less than three hours in many cases and rarely more than 48 hours,” Jason says. “When we were closed due to the pandemic, we continued to operate the farm and provided produce and greens to our furloughed team, in addition to other take-home meals,” he adds.

Scroll through Jason’s urban farm operations!

For budding gardeners, Cornell Cooperative Extension provides information on plant selection and care, soils and site improvement, integrated pest management, composting, and more. Not only will you enjoy the satisfaction of growing your own plants, but Cornell researchers have shown that spending time in nature benefits your physical and mental health.

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