Columnist Tom Atwell, shown in the extensive gardens he and his wife maintain at their Cape Elizabeth home. He has been writing the Maine Gardener column for 20 years. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

My first Maine Gardener column appeared in this newspaper 20 years ago this weekend. Over those two decades, a lot about gardening has changed.

My first column was about getting ready for the season, not gardening itself. I knew people couldn’t plant their cold-weather crops until Patriots Day, April 19, the traditional start day of the gardening season in northern New England. In late March, the ground would be frozen, covered with snow or just too muddy for planting.

With that in mind, I advised people to clean and sharpen their tools to get ready for the upcoming season. If they didn’t want to do it themselves, hardware stores could arrange to have it done, I told readers, quoting someone from Drillen Hardware in South Portland. I just checked: The store still offers that service, so not everything has changed.

You’ve been living in a cave if you’re unaware of the biggest difference since 2004: climate change. Our garden has been free of snow almost all winter, and the soil froze and thawed in cycles many times from mid-December to early March.

This year, I planted lettuce in our garden on March 10, more than a month earlier than I would have done 20 years ago. Admittedly, the lettuce is under a cold frame, which will provide enough warmth to speed its growth. As a test, I planted some lettuce outside the cold frame, too. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

The other big change, also related to climate change, is that gardening has become political. Granted, that trend started earlier. When the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association formed in 1971, it created a separation between gardeners who use only natural pesticides and fertilizers and those who use non-organic methods. Maine was ahead of the curve; the association was the first statewide organic-farming organization in the country.


At that time, organic gardeners were few in number, but I think both groups realized they had a lot in common. Today, more people garden naturally, and though the gap between the two groups has grown in political and online discussions, I like to think they still realize they have a lot in common.

My wife and I have changed our own approach to gardening. Even before I started this column, we’d already dropped the professional weed-and-feed company that used to treat our lawn. But I used chemical weed killers for more than 10 years after that, only stopping about the time I began doing research for the column. Over the years, doing research to educate my readers has also educated me.

Tom Atwell in 2004, taken a few days after his first Maine Gardener column was published. John Ewing

In 2004, I still owned and used a gasoline-powered rototiller on the vegetable garden. I’d stopped tilling between the rows as an alternative to weeding, but I still spread granular fertilizer and ground limestone on the soil and tilled it in at the start of the season. I gave it another thorough tilling as part of fall cleanup. Again, research for this column taught me that such constant tilling harms the soil.

Twenty years ago, people planted ornamental gardens mostly for their beauty, which was usually defined as a weed-free lawn coupled with pretty flowers that bloomed throughout the season. Over the last decade, though, beauty has become less important for some gardeners, or maybe it’s that our ideas of beauty have changed. Now, many of us plant in order to provide pollen, nectar, shelter and food for native birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Years ago, it didn’t matter to me or most gardeners whether a plant was native or not. Sure, some plants were already deemed invasive and responsible gardeners knew to avoid them, but the state did not forbid their sale. The 2007 publication of entomologist/conservationist Doug Tallamy’s influential book, “Bringing Nature Home,” changed that. He taught us that native plants are crucial to wildlife, and he changed the views of many people on gardening.

Locally, Heather McCargo contributed to Mainers’ awareness of the importance of native plants when she founded Wild Seed Project in 2014. Native plants are necessary everywhere – in cities, suburbs and home gardens, not only in the wild – her organization taught us.


I still enjoy gardening and writing about gardening. But I sometimes wish I could return to the simpler times of two decades ago.

Coincidentally, this weekend also marks the 50th anniversary of my start as a full-time employee of this newspaper. (I was a part-timer for six months first.) Beginning 50 years ago, four days a week, I worked as a state desk copy editor, editing stories from five bureaus spread across southern Maine. On the fifth day, or actually night – Saturday night – I reported breaking news. I retired in 2011.

Journalism has faced its own set of dire changes in the past two decades. Here’s hoping we can meet the challenges of both informing the public and saving the planet.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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