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Country Doctors Were the Old-Time Botanists and Some Physicians Still Embrace Gardening


We should be interested in how physicians reduce stress in their lives, especially when a first-year resident in internal medicine at Yale-New Haven hospital writes an articulate and sensitive opinion piece for the New York Times on doctor suicide.

We should be interested in how physicians reduce stress in their lives, especially when a first-year resident in internal medicine at Yale-New Haven hospital writes an articulate and sensitive opinion piece for the New York Times on doctor suicide. The author suggests, partly, that the load of our work breaks through “our reserves of emotional resilience.”

I’ve long been interested in doctors’ hobbies and whatever they might do to escape tension in their lives. I went through a stage of being interested in general aviation, believing that flying takes complete concentration and how can you worry about Mrs. Smith’s blood sugar if you are alone up there in a small Cessna? Family members who flew with me felt I might be relieving my stress but surely adding to theirs!

I’ve talked to doctors who collected stamps or coins, to others who embraced Civil War re-enactments, and, of course, to photographers. We’ve even got a story coming about a physician whose hobby was playing the bagpipes and composing pipe tunes, a surprise to those who never imagined pipers could or would need to read sheet music.

But maybe the best hobby for the busy physician is the tranquility of gardening. You are not going to go into a fatal nose spin in your small plane. No one is going to steal your coin collection or accidentally blind you when a black powder musket misfires. In gardening your only worry might be weather, but you can create shade and always water your plants. Serendipity!


I once interviewed a New Hampshire pathologist who grew carnivorous plants. He recited his plants’ Latin names as if he was back in dermatology class. “Plants that kill?” I asked him. “Sure,” George Newman, MD replied, “Remember pathologists are the oddities of the medical community.”


Growing a more noble plant was Gary Kraus, MD, a Massachusetts obstetrician and, at the time I was standing in his greenhouse, the treasurer of the American Orchid Society. His in-laws gave him 3 orchids one Christmas. “I was hooked,” he says, “and within two years my wife and I had 500 orchids!” He admits it got out of hand; he even started a commercial orchid business with 8,000 plants! He cut back. He had to. He donated the greenhouse to a hospital as part of his new policy, though his interest continues unabated. “When I bend over my brood,” he says, “I am a million miles away. Total escape!”

Maybe gardeners can be more Type A than we realize. Before he took up orchid growing Gary Kraus had 350 rose bushes.


Roses and orchids: The man has to be a romantic.

I know about roses because I had a partner for a dozen years, Peter Rumsey, MD, who had become the British Amateur Rose Champion about the time I started what became a 5-doctor family practice in Derry, NH. Fifty years later, it was the largest privately owned and most successful family practice in New Hampshire.

Peter Rumsey was a gentle soul. I can guess how thrilled he must have been when the Queen Mother stooped over his blooms in 1965 at the British Royal National Rose Society Championship and proclaimed him amateur champion of Britain.

To get there took work. At the time of his rose growing success, he had 1,400 rose bushes in his sprawling English garden! It meant 3 hours of gardening every morning before he went to work as a British family doctor. His success, he said, was due to cows! At one time the sloping land had been a cow pasture and had been forever well-fertilized.

The advice he gave for rose growing was unexpectedly detailed.

First, he said, prepare the soil. Take off the top grass sod then dig out the top soil one spade depth. Next go down another spade depth of subsoil, throw it out and replace it with well-rotted farmyard manure. Now place the grass sod upside down on the manure. Replace the topsoil and leave to settle — for two to three months.

Plant the right way — with room. Dig a hole big enough to avoid cramping the roots and spread, around the roots, a double handful of a mixture of granulated peat and bone meal in a proportion of 4:1. Replace the top soil and tramp it down to anchor the plant and remove air pockets. Verify the junction of roots and stems is at ground level.

Are we done? No, you have to buy quality plants. Feed throughout the growing season balancing it through the roots and the leaves. Spray every 2 weeks: “It’s pointless to grow beautiful blooms for caterpillars to eat,” he says. You can’t have both quantity and quality. Encompass the discipline of disbudding. Before shows, Rumsey even used tissue forceps to remove side buds before they were big enough for his fingers.

For a bloom that might win in a show, he would shade his flowers against rain and any over-hot sun and stake his flowers to protect them from the shade protectors, a big job he said, if you were growing 300 blooms looking for one winner. When he went off to the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show in London for the championship, he cut his roses and immediately put his cut stems in water and removed the thorns. He refrigerated them till the show next day. He had hired a motor home to give all his blooms room and with all the flowers wrapped in absorbent cotton, he drove them like debutantes to a ball, to his personal place in amateur rose-growing history.

Does that seem like a lot of work? Maybe you’re not that keen a gardener but you know about English gardens and their roses. We have just seen a news release that has come at a fortuitous time for any of our readers who’d like to see the Chelsea Flower Show in 2015. A tour operator, Insight Vacations, has decided to include that flower show in a package it is offering, departing May 21, 2015 on a 10-day trip from London to the Loire Valley. We had traveled with them in 2013 to Spain and have just noticed a follow-up brochure that travelers often get, a last-minute offer for a discount of $300 per couple if guests book and make a deposit by Sept. 15 (that’s the middle of THIS month). For details click here.

Riding in a comfortable Insight coach with a small group to see Britain’s best roses sure seems like less work than growing your own fastidiously to the late Peter Rumsey’s specifications.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

Photo of Peter Rumsey, MD. Photo by Eric Anderson, MD.

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