Creating a private park

Mineral Ridge couple grow food, flowers and serenity

Susie Saulitis touches a silk road lily, planted next to blue delphiniums and pinkish coneflowers. The lilies give off a sweet smell and attract butterflies, as well as orioles that come to drink the sap that drips in the evening, she said. -- Tribune Chronicle photo by Burton Cole

MINERAL RIDGE — Susie Saulitis begins her day with a cup of coffee in her garden.

“I come out at 5:30 every morning and watch the sun rise,” she said. “Then I take a walk (among the flower and vegetable beds) and see what opened up in the night. I see changes every morning.”

The gardens that she and her husband, John, have cultivated, expanded and revised every year since 1988 are like an oasis from the cares and stresses of life, they said.

“It’s like having your own private park,” John said.

“I spend my relaxing moments right here,” Susie said. “That’s my chair by that tree.”

Actually, Susie has several chairs and benches set up on the woodchips and mulch between the raised beds, some under trees for shade, others in a bit of sun.

“It’s a simple thing but it gives great joy.”

There are about 15 flower and vegetable beds both clustered and scattered along the acre-and-a-quarter property. They are packed with more than 200 varieties of plants and flowers.

“I just love plants. I’m not a good landscaper, but I love plants,” Susie said.

“I don’t have a color scheme, per se. I put the flowers up front for the looks and the vegetables in the back for the eats. We plant in meal-sized chunks. I don’t need two bushels of tomatoes,” she said.

The vegetables change from year to year, depending on their mood and on what they’ve learned grows best in their yard. This year, the vegetables include potatoes, broccoli, squash, beets, tomatoes, peppers, peas, yellow beans, garlic and herbs.

“We tried to grow peanuts one year,” John said. It worked, but the peanuts took up a whole bed and a full growing season to produce about two cups of peanuts. “It was not worth repeating,” he said.

There also used to be grapes before the trees grew too large and cast too much shade.

“I used to make grape jelly,” John said. “I had the kids do the Lucy thing” — stomp the grapes.

“I must have been at work,” Susie said, with a bit of an eye roll.

“I had bags on their feet,” John said.

The kids since have grown and are on their own. Shortly after daughter Emily moved to Chicago, she called home to say that she never realized that she had been eating organic vegetables her whole life. Organic was a big deal that cost extra cash in Chicago.

“He’d overnight her beets and tomatoes from the garden,” Susie said.

The part of the garden that visitors notice are the jam-packed bursts of colors in the flower beds. The plants include many varieties of milkweed, which attract bees and butterflies, which in turn attract birds.

“There’s always something flying in or out here,” Susie said.

She may be nearly in downtown Weathersfield, but in her backyard on Morris Street, the sounds seem to be primarily the songs of birds.

“Plant mulberries,” she said. “They’re like instant trees and you’ll get orioles, cowbirds and catbirds coming around.”

Just a few of the other plants and flowers in the beds are sunflowers, lilies for fragrance, coneflowers, cardinal flowers, blazing stars, delphinium for her mother, who loves that shade of blue, St. John’s wort, ornamental grasses and black-eyed Susans.

“I don’t like them (black-eyed Susans) as much but the birds do,” Susie said. “I don’t want common. If you can get it at the gas station, if it’s a gas station flower, I don’t want it.”

Oh, and there are the oak and maple trees she got for birthdays and babied while they grew in the hard-packed Mineral Ridge soil.

It’s not about creating a plot that looks like a magazine cover. It’s about finding the combination that touches you. “If you have two petunias in a pot and it brings you joy, that’s your garden,” she said.

Susie is a chemist who teaches and supervises the lab at Mount Union College. John is an ombudsman with the Area Agency on Aging 11. Both had served in the Peace Corps before moving to Mineral Ridge in May 1988.

“We threw the furniture in the house,” and while the kids, then 3 and 4, watched from the porch, she and John started digging the garden that very day, she said. “We did community agriculture in the Peace Corps, so we had training.

From study and trial-and-error, they learned where the wet and dry spots were, where the sunny and shady spots were, and which plants worked best in her soil in each of those areas. Conditions not only are different from region to region but from neighborhood to neighborhood and even from yard to yard.

“It’s like the old saying, you don’t know a plant until you’ve killed it,” Susie said.

She prefers native flowers because she knows they can handle winter chills, summer suns, droughts and rainy seasons. “We’re in the Midwest, so you need tough plants,” she said.

She also likes to buy from local stores that grow their own stock. Plants from big-box stores usually aren’t as hardy or as ready for the area as homegrown plants, she said.

“We started small, like everybody else should, and over the years, we just added on. We kept making new sides to it,” she said.

And she’s dedicated.

“I asked for three square yards of compost for Mother’s Day,” Susie said. Tools such as weed trimmers and trees are birthday gifts, and gift cards to local garden stores for the spring are Christmas presents.

“We love to be outside,” she said. “This is great exercise. I love pushing a lawn mower. We’ll keep doing it as long as we can.”

John said these days, he is discovering some old joys anew.

“Now that we have an 18-month-old granddaughter, I’m kind of redoing what we did with the kids when they were growing up,” like eating peas straight from the shell, he said.

“I’m thinking of clearing some space and growing grapes again,” John said. “I want to make jelly again.”

Because sometimes, even in a garden of serenity, little feet need something to stomp.