The daughter of a nursery owner, Rose Marie Nichols McGee grew up weeding with one hand and reading a book with the other. There were always plenty of weeds and boring chores in the family business, but there also was much to pique her interest: so many different fragrances of thymes to discover, tiny violets and other flowers to taste, lavender honey to make from her family's hives.
Oregon's mild climate allowed a rich diversity of fresh vegetables and herbs, and Rose Marie's father was always scouting unfamiliar edibles to introduce first to his family and then to his customers. Rose Marie was eating Asian vegetables and munching on nasturtiums in salads when other kids her age were hedging on the peas. Now president of Nichols Garden Nursery, Rose Marie is carrying on the family tradition of nudging others to develop a more adventurous (and eclectic) culinary spirit.
Rose Marie may appreciate the ornamental, but she's a food gardener at heart. So when her mother developed rheumatoid arthritis, Rose Marie filled planters with herbs, strawberries, and other edibles instead of flowers. Then she began experimenting with different container vegetable gardens and before long a book was born: The Bountiful Container, which she co-wrote with Maggie Stuckey.
"If you can grow pansies in a pot, you can grow peas in a pot. Both need about the same conditions, but one will give you dinner," says Rose Marie in the book's introduction. The book covers all the basics of growing edibles in containers, gives ideas for successful pairings, and introduces the reader to varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruits that are most adaptable to container life.
"You need to utilize your footprint when you garden in a container," she explains. "Think about how you can get the most out of the space, using succession plantings and vertical space." A 'North Pole' columnar apple tree forms the foundation of one of Rose Marie's productive, 2-foot diameter planters. Columnar trees have short stubs instead of branches but they produce full-size fruit. She sows 'Malabar' spinach at the base of the tree so it will climb the trunk, and adds a few clumps of chives, which she's found helps prevent apple scab. When the spinach bolts in summer's heat, in go dwarf basil and marigolds. Then after the basil is nipped by fall frost, pansies take its place.
You might be thinking growing fruit in containers will only work in warm regions, but Rose Marie doesn't leave northern gardeners out in the cold. Her book offer tips for keeping these mini gardens productive from year to year even in snowy climes.
This year, she's going to try new combinations, such as using a sheep's hook to hang a pot of oregano in a planter of tomatoes and basil. And now when she travels to Vietnam or Italy or South America - all on her wish list - in search of 'new' varieties, she'll also have the small-space gardener in mind.