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July 6, 2013

How their gardens grow

Local residents to host Garden Conservancy Open Day

By Cheryl Petersen Contributing Writer
The Daily Star

---- — In the ancient world of hunter-gatherers, it was thought that brought to light the useful wonders of animal domestication and crop cultivation. Thought power urged human beings to settle down, contemplate a plan, and manifest that which feeds the body. Although a societal revolution began, it didn’t happen overnight and it continues today. That same thought power has since advanced the wonder of gardening, also known to feed the soul. 

In the 14th century, Europeans would flee to country gardens to escape the plagues rampaging through their cities. These very gardens became more sophisticated over the centuries. With the advent of world travel, ships began transporting plants and ideas. Inevitably, the idea of gardening came to America in the minds of the pilgrims, and our nation eventually became ground for some very prestigious gardens.

To preserve some of these impressive historical gardens, the Garden Conservancy was established in the late 20th century. Membership fees and donations offer financial support for its mission. The Conservancy also developed a program called Open Days, which spreads the preservation message by providing access to some of the nation’s finest private gardens — including some right here in the local area. 

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, visitors are welcome to tour four private gardens in Delaware County. Visitors can explore, at their leisure, the vast variety of approaches to gardening. Owners will share their expertise, much of it gained through hard work and experience. They will also answer questions in regard to the Garden Conservancy. 

Cynthia and Charles Bonnes’ garden at 265 Bussey Hollow Road in Andes involves major architectural gardening. 

“We bought the old farmstead in 1983 and began reconfiguring the landscape,” Charles Bonnes said. “There are two main focal points, both of which required excavation.” The first is a series of four ponds, layered down the hill in a southeast direction from the home. The first pond was built near the house and is now flush with mature white-flowered potentilla. A second pond was built above the first and became the anchor to a water drainage system plus the water supply to a fountain. The third and fourth ponds were built later and create a tiered look to the property. Each pond is surrounded by a fascinating mix of plant color and texture.

The garden exudes a strong sense of determination. 

“Every rock is placed,” Bonnes said. “I strive to place the rocks so they look natural.” 

Stones were also brought in to establish walls and steps. 

“The second focal point begins with the original pond; however (it) aims up the hill to the massive old barn. A crane had to be brought onto the property to shift the leaning barn and align it properly,” Bonnes said. 

A bird’s-eye view from the barn reveals a series of projects accomplished over the decades.

A perennial garden was established between the house and barn rather early. “It’s important to have something of interest all year round in a perennial garden,” Bonnes said. “This garden has a nice mix of flowering perennials, and boxwood that stay green all year round, plus stonework.” 

The mix keeps the gardens attractiveness even in the wintertime. To the side of this garden is a pergola with hanging wisteria. The roots of the wisteria are prominently wrapped around the pergola poles, offering a striking contrast next to the rhododendrons.

In the spring, Bonnes planted four weeping beech trees near the vegetable garden. 

“Every year I have a new project but gardeners need to be able to change too,” Bonnes said.

Plants and bushes planted years ago were obstructing the view, so they were removed. 

“I had to learn to scale or calibrate appropriately,” Bonnes said with a smile. “Start small and work your way up.”

Quaker Hill Farm at 2121 Quaker Hill Road in Jefferson rests on a hill overlooking a valley. The trim lawn, flowers and garden plot veil the fact that this is a young garden that gradually transitioned into a space of interest. 

“We moved here 40 years ago and spent years cleaning up the derelict barnyard,” said owner Liz Searles. “Then 20 years ago, Richard and I traveled to England and went on a garden tour. We met great people and our interest in gardening galvanized.” 

The couple returned home to research major players in gardening and took the plunge of first developing a vegetable plot. The next project was creating a landscape of petunias. 

“We use the natural terrain while gardening,” Searles said. “We eventually acquired a property with a rambling stream and began gardening around the water flow.” 

Rocks from the farm are used as a means to turn a problem into an opportunity, adding to the lanscape. 

Each year brings new delights. “A few years ago we built a living willow dome,” Searles said. “It arches six feet high.” 

The cupola was used in their daughter’s wedding last year and will again be used this year when their son gets married.

Berry Brook Farm at 310 Henderson Hollow Road in the town of Colchester is gardened by Mermer Blakeslee and Eric Hamerstrom.

“A garden, to me, isn’t something to look at, but to be within,” Blakeslee said. “Gardening is only partially about the plants.” 

Berry Brook Farm is cultivated as a whole. The gardens originate with the place, whether it be a dry stream bed, or a huge rock, a hill, a dog’s path, a swamp, the surrounding woods, or the weather. Plants are chosen for the place. “This simple, yet profound idea saves gardeners from a lot of work,” Blakeslee said. 

Not to mean gardening doesn’t require work; it does, Blakeslee points out. However, when the site, weather and nuance of the land are worked with, the work becomes joy, she said. 

Blakeslee recommends planting epimediums, astilbes and Solomon seal perennials for shady areas; and geranium, veronicastrum virginicum, and Japanese anemones for perennials in the sunny areas. 

“A garden gets very interesting when you plant at every level,” added Blakeslee. “Ground covers, bulbs, grasses, shrubs, vines and small trees are appealing in a garden.” 

But, “Deer are always a threat,” said Blakeslee, who along with her husband, have a dog and cat to help keep the gardens protected. 

The couple’s love of gardening was noticed by a garden scout from the Garden Conservancy, and Berry Brook Farm was asked to participate in the Open Day Tour.

Totem Farm is at 581 Rathburn Hill Road in East Meredith. Don Statham began gardening in 2002 after renovating the old farm house. The garden covers 4.25 acres of sloping land, including fields of wild flowers, a moon garden, a young lilac walk, a very old apple orchard, a pond walk and a patterned meadow walk. Walks are defined by stones, hedges, and rock walls. Chickens stroll under living-willow tunnels. 

Statham grew up with an extended family who all love to garden, he said. With memories of his great-grandmother preferring scented plants and another great-grandmother growing gourds to dry and use as ladles to water her plants from a rain barrel, Statham brings a unique perspective to gardening in Delaware County. 

Statham’s favorite project is the project at hand, he said. 

“These days I am growing willows for making living and dried willow structures. Perhaps the nicest thing about any project is the way that what you plan on paper is forced to adapt in its interaction with the reality of nature. When the idea meets the dirt, that’s when things get really exciting,” said Statham, who also blogs about his work.

“Most people go for annuals when gardening; however, annual plants have to be replaced every year,” said Statham, who said he prefers buying locally. “I buy plants rated for zone 4/5 and that have been tested in our area.” 

Taking the time to plant ornamental shrubs trees and perennials plus buying plants that survive the local climate add to the love of gardening.

“Totem Farm was asked by the Garden Conservancy to participate in the Open Day,” Statham noted. “The money raised by opening our gardens on July 6 funds the restoration of exceptional old gardens. Therefore, the project at hand is to fit the conservancy mission.”