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Valedictory The Bay Gardener, Dr. Francis Gouin

June 3, 1938 - August 2, 2018

 

 

Dr. G’s Allis-Chalmers B tractor before and after its restoration. Clara and Frank Gouin, with the 1930 Ford Model A, he restored from the wheels up. 

 


We all knew the Bay Gardener, who died last week, of cancer, at age 80. 

Frank Gouin was Chesapeake Country’s fountain of gardening wisdom, known globally for his scientific innovations. He was so generous with his time, so giving, that he’d answer any question readers could think of and maybe show up at your house to talk about the problem. 

In his Bay Weekly columns since February 24, 2005, you learned a strategy each week for encouraging your patch of earth to grow veggie- and fruitful. 

There was all that and more to the extraordinary man behind the column, Dr. Francis Gouin. The University of Maryland professor emeritus liked his title; he worked hard to earn it, taking each step along the way by trial, error and revision. His specialty was practical, result-producing science, as befits a man who held his pants up with suspenders and wanted you to call him Frank — though to me he was always Dr. G. 

The flinty New Hampshireman, who grew up speaking New England French alongside English, had a path laid out for him. Romeo Gouin, a master plumber, taught both his sons his trade. Maurice stuck to it; Francis struck out on his own, making what he needed out of every resource that came his way.  

“Dad bought us tools, not toys,” he wrote for Bay Weekly this Father’s Day “in appreciation of a father who greatly influenced my life.” 

Dr. G spent his life with one or another kind of tool in his hands. Whatever a job needed, he could make, and in his spare time he made anything that captured his fancy: violins, guitars and banjos; boats; parade floats that took the prize every year. 

Thrift was another family lesson, and he couldn’t let any old thing go to waste. He restored not one but three vintage tractors, starting with a 1949 John Deere B. When finally he had it and an Allis-Chalmers B in operating condition, he found himself a Farmall B. 

“This will make for a colorful collection of green, orange and red for the Shady Side Fourth of July parade,” he wrote about his collection. 

Then he took on a 1930 Ford Model A, restoring it from the wheels up. With its shiny black body and summer squash-yellow — the original color — wheels, it looked good. It ran pretty well, too, rattling through Southern Anne Arundel County at 45 miles per hour so that passengers got the authentic ride, shaking and rattling as they rolled. Story and pictures at www.bayweekly.com/node/14513 

Between tractors he restored a 24-foot MacGregor swing-keel sailboat, finishing its red hull to the exacting standards of Garry Williams of Osprey Marine Composites. Story and pictures at www.bayweekly.com/node/16389 

“Frank was pretty good at it — and dedicated,” Williams said. “When I’d tell him it wasn’t quite right, he’d go at it again and again, until he got it.” 

“I was never afraid to tackle something different because it was a challenge,” Dr. G told me, in the first of 70-some years he hasn’t planted a garden. 

 

Off to College 

Under young Frank’s care, the family’s 30-by-12-foot garden grew, and with it his ambitions.  

When Romeo bought a small 25-acre vegetable farm with a roadside market, Frank figured out how to increase productivity. First he built a cold-frame to extend New Hampshire’s growing season. Then he stepped up to a greenhouse, working with his vocational education teacher to erect and figure out how to heat a torn-down one on a foundation Frank designed. 

Working the farm and selling plants, vegetables and his mother’s pies at the roadside stand, “I earned enough money,” he said, “that I decided to go to a two-year college, New Hampshire’s Thompson School of Agriculture in Durham.” Living and working in the school greenhouses on weekends earned him a wage of 65 cents an hour. He saved the cost of a meal ticket by cooking for himself, putting to use skills ingrained by his mother, Theresa, who feared her son would marry a woman who couldn’t cook.  

That should have been that. Frank would have earned his two-year degree and gone back home to Gilford to start his own nursery and greenhouse operation. 

Would have, except that fate, his teachers and Providence intervened. 

The scientists he worked with told him “you’re wasting your time at the two-year college.” Others said the same. The local doctor offered room and board in return for his help. 

Over a week of rain that kept him from his nursery work, he made up his mind. “I sat at the end of the bed and thought, and I went.” He shook his head in wonder at the paths taken and untaken. “It was the hand of God.” 

Enrolled at the University of New Hampshire, he met his wife-to-be, Clara Olesniewicz, a Polish Catholic girl, at the ice-skating rink. They courted on snowshoes. 

“He was different,” she says, “and when you don’t have money, you do things you can afford to do.” 

On one date, that meant gigging frogs. On another, grilling hot dogs over a fire that melted the snow. Others, walks in the woods — a good thing, because Clara had determined she’d only marry a man who would walk in the woods with her. 

At the university, Dr. G began a lifetime habit of practical research, developing methods still in use. Research on rooting mountain laurel earned him a National Science Foundation Scholarship of $250 that paid two-thirds of his senior year tuition and took him, and Clara, to Harvard to present his first academic paper. 

In gratitude for the boost that scholarship gave him, he’s endowed an annual University of Maryland scholarship to help students do research. Between his writing — including for Bay Weekly — and consulting, “We have $53,000 in trust,” he told me last month.  

He learned as much in the field as in the classroom. His college advisor, Dr. Bill Smith, knew ability when he saw it. Smith hired his new student for $1 an hour to manage his 500-acre blueberry farm.  

Three acres of high-bush berries were harvested as pick-your-own. From the 53 acres of wild low-bush berries, Frank oversaw shipment of 125 to 150 tons of frozen berries a year to Boston, to the Tabletop Pie Company, Boston Frozen Food and local bakers. 

“I had 60 people working for me, including kids raking the wild berries, sorters, packagers and drivers. We’d load seven tons a day onto 16-ton freezer trucks,” he remembered. “At 5am, I’d call Boston and argue with buyers over the price of fresh and frozen berries.” 

Married, Frank and Clara would have headed cross-country to graduate school in Texas had not the University of Maryland’s acceptance come first. There he earned his Master’s degree, and, as the family grew to four and the department quadrupled his grad student salary to $8,500, his PhD.  

“I was curious,” he said of his edge. “My research was unique. Nobody had done work like I was doing.” 

“Frank was always one to see a need and do something about it,” said Clara, his wife of 56 years, herself a landscape architect working for Howard County Parks. “He was not theoretical, always practically oriented.”  

The University of Maryland kept its bright, ambitious graduate, hiring him for its practice-improving Agricultural Extension Service. There he climbed the academic ladder to full professor and department chairman.  

In those years, 1962 to 1995, he gave, he said, “120 percent of his time to horticulture.” Ninety percent went to the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, solving practical problems for horticulture professionals, from farmers to landscape architects, and for home gardeners statewide, expanding his reach with a radio program and informational bulletins, often illustrated by Clara. 

Managing his research by “begging, borrowing or stealing,” Dr. G transformed the way plants are grown for us — and the way we grow them ourselves.  

 

Bestowing Wisdom 

When readers asked Bay Weekly’s Bay Gardener a question, they got the real goods. 

If you wanted to know about blueberries — which plants to choose, how to fertilize and prune them, their demand for soil with a pH no higher than 5.0 — he’d tell you. He had to learn those answers for himself almost 60 years ago at the Triple Trouble Blueberry Farm. 

You wanted to know how to pot plants? Research for his master’s degree resulted in a whole new fertilizer, Osmocote, a nine-month slow-release ­fertilizer for container production.  

“There was no product like it,” he said. “First we made mass-application formulas for the nursery industry. Then we worked out concentrations for a gallon container, so you can use it at home.” 

Before Dr. G’s formulation, 85 percent of the plants sold by nurseries had been grown in the ground. Now, 85 percent are grown in containers, so you buy them with roots intact and carry them home conveniently. 

His PhD research advanced the nursery industry from southern climes as far north as Canada and Norway.  

“The most critical work was root hardiness, because we knew nothing about how much cold roots would take,” the Bay Gardener explained. “The Kennedy Center is a good example. They were losing all their stuff shortly after Thanksgiving. I told them that was because they’d planted boxwoods, which die at 21 degrees. We replaced it with Japanese holly, which looks like boxwood and can survive down to 14 degrees below zero. It’s still there.” 

From that research, he says, came the whole list of plants by hardiness used by landscape architecture. What that means to you is cheaper, hardier plants that grew up in the same climate where you buy and raise them.  

“Frank Gouin knows more about plants than anybody,” said Tony Dove, the former Chief Horticulturist at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, who’d been one of Dr. G’s many students. 

You probably didn’t want to have your soil tested. But Dr. G told you that you had to. Have your soil tested was his favorite refrain, at least part of the answer to most every question. That’s because — and here he might show his impatience for science doubters and know-nothings — plant vitality depends on soil chemistry. On organic matter; on key elements like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus and trace elements like iron and boron; on pH, soil acidity or alkalinity, for which every plant has a very particular taste. 

So Dr. G told you how to take your sample and where to send it, and when you did, he’d translate the science into practical advice for your garden.  

If you wonder whether it all made a difference, Sheila Brady knows it does. “He’s alive in our gardens, in projects all around D.C. and as far as Boston, Denver and Portland,” said the principal partner of the renowned Washington, D.C., landscape architecture firm of Oehme, van Sweden.  

“He’d read all of our soil test reports and recommend what nutrients were deficient or okay, so we could amend our soils. Our gardens would be prolific and beautiful because the soil chemistry was right,” she said. 

You wanted to know about compost? 

Dr. G was the guru of composting; he invented the science of it. Since the early 1970s, he’s made compost from every kind of waste, from sewage sludge to dead chickens on Eastern Shore poultry farms to crab and lobster waste, working with stuff so stinky “it made me lose my breakfast.” 

Those years of work explain his excitement about Bloom, the soil conditioner produced from sewage sludge at the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in D.C. 

He’s taught composting throughout the world, country and state, including to our Master Gardeners — which is another program he pioneered in Maryland.  

Christmas time, you could buy or cut your own Maryland-grown tree because of Dr. G’s first big project. Western Maryland Christmas trees were dying. He discovered they were poisoned by fly ash from power plants in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. With the bipartisan help of Sen. Charles ‘Mac’ Mathias and Congressman Steny Hoyer in those days before the EPA, he helped us — and the trees — breathe easier by forcing down plant emissions and the sulfur content of the coal they burned. 

“I did so many things,” he said. “I’ve had a hell of a lot of experience,”  adding his strongest profanity for emphasis. “Can’t is not in my vocabulary. Dad would be proud.” 

 

Upakrik Farm 

If you couldn’t find Frank in the garden, you’d likely find him in his workshop. Unless he was at the Farmers Market, selling the products — from persimmons to pine boughs — of Upakrik Farm. That’s the way it’s been since 1995, when he retired as the chairman of the University of Maryland Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. He retired early, worn out he said, by the hassles of administration. 

On Rockhold Creek in Deale, he and wife Clara found a place so right for them that they didn’t need to confer before surprising the real estate agent with simultaneous we’ll take this. 

At 11 acres, it was just big enough for small-scale farming: tending a big garden; reviving the Christmas tree farm; planting a peach orchard and a half dozen generous persimmon trees.  

Its big barn included a workshop, with an office, woodworking and machine shops and big, open spaces for building and rebuilding. That’s where he made his stringed instruments, played them and then gave them away. Built and restored boats, then paddled and sailed them. Restored his three tractors and his Model A Ford.  

Dr. G drove the John Deere tractor to Bay Weekly to convince me to drop the Cooperative Extension Service’s Ask a Gardener column in favor of one he proposed writing. That visit — or maybe it was an earlier one — led to hundreds of Bay Gardener columns, written exclusively for Bay Weekly. 

Upakrik Farm is where his dogs romped and his cats luxuriated, where he cooked and pickled and canned and made kielbasa from Clara’s father’s recipe. That’s where he and Clara were, she said, “so happy.” 

This time of year, I’d be bringing my husband’s soft-necked garlic crop to Dr. G, asking his help in making it into braids, a skill he’d watched and learned as a boy. Would you like some onions, he’d ask, and send me home with them — and tomatoes, squash, cabbage, kohlrabi, even a load of compost. No matter the season, you didn’t leave Upakrik Farm empty-handed.  

In spring he gave me pussy willows; in fall, all the persimmons I could eat; in winter, wreaths and roping he’d made himself. We’d get those the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the day we cut our Christmas tree from his fields. Not this year. 

The Bay Gardener has left us, but he did not leave us bereft. He shared his knowledge with us. He is alive in our gardens — our hearts and our minds. 

 

Farewells 

Visit with Dr. Gouin’s family and community Sunday August 12, 5-8pm at Lee Funeral Home, 8200 Jennifer Ln., Owings. 

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated Monday August 13 at 10am at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, 8816 Chesapeake Ave., North Beach. 

His body will then be returned to Earth with burial at Jesus the Good Shepherd Cemetery, 1601 West Mount Harmony Rd., Owings. 

 

Memorials 

In Dr. Gouin’s memory, swell the Francis R. and Clara L. Gouin Scholarship Fund for students pursuing an education in horticulture, plant science, environmental science or landscape architecture. Send contributions to University of Maryland, Office of Gift Acceptance, Floor 3, Fieldhouse Dr., Bldg. 407, Riggs Alumni Center. College Park, MD 20742-1521. 

The fund also benefits from your purchase of his book, collecting many of his essays for the Annapolis Horticulture Society, Enough Said! A Guide to Gardening through The Seasons with Dr. Francis R. Gouin. $26.50 including shipping through Annetta H. Kushner at [email protected]  

Flowers are also welcome, as Dr. Gouin’s lifetime work supported the horticulture industry.