Veteran Gardener Harvests Wisdom

Marcella Hayes in her garden at Asbury Solomons. Photo: Richard Findley

By Dolly Merritt

Ask Marcella Hayes how her garden grows, and she’ll mention a truckload of manure and sawdust plus leaf mold, peat moss, and compost. The 95-year-old gardener says she has tried just about anything to amend and loosen up the “crusty clay” soil of the Asbury Solomons community garden. 

Hayes and her late husband Landon moved into the retirement community when it was built in 1996. Soon after, Hayes became a force of nature in the plots, organizing and assigning the parcels to fellow gardeners and acquiring two 22-by-25-foot spots for herself. 

After 26 years, she now maintains just one plot, after relinquishing the other, two years ago, when she became ill. “I miss having the room to grow more strawberries and raspberries,” she says.

For the veteran gardener, more plants mean more time. She makes daily visits, sometimes spending two hours tending to her vegetables and flowers, which are planted on raised mounds of soil with no surrounding walls. 

“Two hours is my limit,” she exclaimed. Planting is a pleasure for Hayes, who developed her garden interest when she was a small girl, following her mother around the family farm with her own short-handled hoe.

Every day Hayes takes care of her garden consisting of 13 vegetables including Swiss chard, okra, sweet potatoes and eggplant. A basket full of her harvest, displayed in the community center, encourages residents to help themselves during the season.

Hayes shares her knowledge with fellow gardeners, such as Jackie Donaldson whose plot has been located next to Hayes’ for 15 years. “I watched what she did and did what she did,” says Donaldson. “Every time I would have a question, she was my go-to and it’s still going on.”

In addition to her plot, there are plantings around Hayes’ cottage, which include Knock Out roses, daylilies, phlox, and coneflowers, prompting passersby to linger. She makes two bins of compost to enrich the soil in both gardens. 

Beyond working in her gardens, Hayes volunteered for 22 years at Sotterley Plantation, a historic site in St. Mary’s County. She spent two or three days a week there, weeding, tending flowers, and sharing her horticultural knowledge. Hayes even designed and planted a vegetable garden consisting of quadrants and posts, inspired by the historic gardens in Williamsburg, Va. Her health forced her to pull back her contributions, but she still visits occasionally, to see how things are growing. “I love that place,” she says.

Friend and neighbor, Libby Wheeler, volunteered with Hayes, weeding and trimming. “Everyone there loved Marcella,” says Wheeler. “She really knows her plants and she is really a hard worker. She would take a hoe and go.”

Because of bad knees, Hayes has recently begun using a golf cart to reach her plot. “They won’t operate on knees after 90,” she says. Even when her cart lost power recently, she didn’t abandon her harvest. She walked in the heat back to her home and returned using her walker. “I had to pick my tomatoes before they would rot.” 

“I’ve always had a garden everywhere I’ve lived,” says Hayes, who believes that experience provides knowledge. 

One of her best tips is to apply two tablespoons of Epsom salts when planting tomatoes. “They taste better,” she says. 

Her most important advice to novice gardeners? Prepare the soil well, and find out what requirements a plant needs, such as a north or south location.

When testing the soil to see if it’s friable (crumbly), Hayes suggests moistening the dirt and then picking up a handful to squeeze between the palms. If a clump forms, it needs to be amended or enriched with elements such as peat moss and manure. 

The gardener admits that “fighting the bugs” is her least favorite part of gardening; the best part for her, however, is relaxation. 

“It’s a stress buster and I want to get my hands right in the dirt,” she says. 

For now, she waits for the temperatures to drop so she can do what she does best. “I’m a pick and shovel person; I like digging.”