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Nourish – March 2020

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The Bug Man’s Mother



The Bug Man’s Mother

By Duke Elsner, Ph.D. and Advanced Extension Master Gardener

The year 2019 will always be most memorable for me.  I was able to retire from full-time employment with MSU Extension on January 1.  My wife Gayla and I took a long trip to Oregon and Washington. We became the new superintendents of the Tanner Building at the Northwestern Michigan Fair, in charge of the agriculture, horticulture and floriculture exhibits.

None of these compare with the moments spent with my mother in 2019.  Mom died on October 9, at the amazing old age of 102. It was a rough year for her at times, but she was peaceful and not in pain in the end.  She was still pretty mobile at the start of the year, but a fall in the spring resulted in four broken ribs; she never regained all of her strength after that trauma.  

Gayla and I visited her a lot during the year, as did many other relatives.  She would often reminisce about the family farm she grew up on, in southwest Michigan; memories of her youth were clearer to her than those from her grown-up days.  We tried to take her to our house on most weekends so she could get out of her nursing home room and see trees, flowers, and other people.

Dan and Gustie (Rohde) Graber with children, L-R: Hattie, Theresa, Henry, Adolph, and Dan Gra(e)ber. Eden Springs (House of David), Benton Harbor, Michigan 1919. Photo provided by Dr. Duke Elsner, PhD

On most trips she would remark about how many trees there still were in our area.  “I guess my father didn’t cut all of them down,” was a common comment; her father worked on a lumbering crew in northern Michigan for five years before returning to Russia to marry his sweetheart. They immigrated to the United States in 1912, with two sons. 

Mom came along in 1917, their fifth child (the cute little one in the middle).  She was a tomboy, likely to be found playing baseball with her brothers, walking on the high beams of the barn, or working just as hard as any of them on farm chores.  She survived having tuberculosis before there were antibiotics to treat it. In addition to farm work, the family put a lot of effort into gardening.  

Photo by Dr. Duke Elsner, PhD

Her mother had a large rose garden with many other perennials and annual flowers, and numerous flowering trees and shrubs.  My mother and her brothers helped care for the gardens and landscape after my grandmother got too old to do it.  

Mom married Edward Elsner in 1940 and they moved into a small house in Benton Harbor.  Three sons later, they decided to move to a larger property in the country. She helped design their new house, making sure it abounded in casual comfort and good views of future gardens.  I came along in 1956 when mom was 39. At this time my family raised pickles and red currants as commercial crops, and sweet corn, potatoes and tomatoes for personal use. On the ornamental side, mom specialized in roses, lilacs, peonies, dahlias and bulb flowers.

Photo by Dr. Duke Elsner, PhD

Her mother and one brother continued to live on the old family farm until 1977.  I spent most of my summer days on that farm, working in the orchards, fields and garden.  People often ask me how I became interested in insects. It started by being surrounded by gardens, shrubs, trees and agricultural crops, both at home and on the old farm.  It was very easy to see both the beauty and importance of insects, and my mother never discouraged me from handling them, using her plants to feed them, or keeping a few live ones in the refrigerator.


Photo by Dr. Duke Elsner, PhD

After I left home, mom and dad planted many trees on their property, turning it into a woodlot.  Gardening efforts declined as they aged, but never ceased.  After dad died in 2005, mom continued to live in her home for almost another decade.  She was still mowing her own lawn at age 90! In early 2014 she broke her foot and we had the perfect excuse to pry her out of her house and move her to an assisted living facility in Traverse City.

We added a ramp to our house so she could roll her walker to our front door.  Of course, it needed a row of window boxes to spruce it up a bit. That’s mom, going on 100, helping with the work.  

Duke Elsner, Ph.D., learned as many important things about gardens and landscapes from his mother as he did from universities.  Mom gardened with a few simple guidelines that are still good to consider.   

If it requires a lot of work, that’s OK, you get a lot in return. 

If it requires a lot of spraying, it isn’t worth growing.  

Grow more than you need and give it to those who do need it.  

Give free plants, cuttings, seeds, etc. to anybody that wants some. 

I’m very proud to have many daylilies, peonies, phlox, roses and lilacs in my garden that came from my mother’s garden.  A few of the roses can be traced back to the old farm. Now it’s my job to make sure they outlive me. Fortunately, I had a great teacher for the last 60 years.


By Nancy Larson, Advanced Extension Master Gardener

Did anyone receive a holiday plant gift?  What a really thoughtful gift—and now—you have to care for it.  Holiday gifts such as Poinsettias, Amaryllis, or succulents all require different treatment.  Whether received as holiday gifts (lucky you!) or have been in your collection for years, houseplants deserve special treatment through the dry winter season. I’ve also received plants as a holiday gift and wanted to offer some tips I’ve learned to help you maintain healthy houseplants.

First, you need to know that plants should be segregated.  Moisture loving plants vs drier plants. Watering a cacti weekly would turn it to rot pretty quickly. A Boston fern needs more frequent watering than succulents or cacti do. In addition, some plants like violets and orchids, like to sit on plates with stones, pebbles or marbles that are kept wet.  They like the evaporated moisture. Please bear this in mind when following the tips:

  1. Practice smart watering.  Humidity in homes can vary greatly in winter depending on the coldness of the outside air forcing our heat to work and dry our inside air,  whether we humidify, how many people live in the house, etc. Check your gift plant’s soil for moisture.  Push your finger down and into the soil.  In many cases, if one inch is dry it’s time to water. However, this is not necessarily true with suculents such as sansaveria and jade. They need to be bone dry before watering.  Alternatively, fern and poinsettia will wilt if their soil is bone dry.  Although, if water seeps around your finger when you check the soil, then it needs to dry out. You should wait a week and check again. Inside, we don’t have our automatic trickle or spray watering systems so it is imperative to check on your house plants for moisture needs regularly.
  2. Check the plant for its health.  Remove any damaged, spotted, yellowed leaves.  Off-colored leaves can be a symptom of many things such as root problems, too much fertilizer or even too much water. House plants like to rest in the winter months so require little fertilization, except for orchids and forced bulbs which may need a diluted portion.  Come spring, give your house plants a bit of organic plant food as the daylight hours increase.
  3. If you are lucky to get a plant label/tag with it, READ IT! It could have helpful tips for watering, sun exposure, and placement.  If you don’t have a label/tag, check the internet for sources regarding how to care for your plant.  YouTube has some helpful videos for plant care, but be sure the source is reputable.
  4. Remove any floral wrappings.  They are decorative and look nice, but they cover the hole in the bottom of the plant container which keeps the plant from properly draining, and breathing. ALWAYS put your pots on a saucer or decorative bowl.  You don’t want to ruin your tables with a water ring from the plant pots moisture.
  5. Location!  Location! Location! A south or east facing window brings in good light.  Avoid placing your plant near fireplaces or by forced air heat vents, as that causes dryness and withering.  Watch for signs. If you choose a location and in a week or two the plant is drooping, move it, it’s telling you it doesn’t like it there.

Remember we often kill our plants with kindness, thinking that watering them often is loving them. Don’t overwater. 

Enjoy your inside plants!

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