Get Growing: Putting the new garden to bed

  • A new shade garden that Mickey Rathbun created with her son Nicholas over the summer, with slabs of Goshen stone making a curving path bisecting the garden. mickey rathbun photos

Monday, January 04, 2021

Many gardeners I know put in new garden beds this summer — vegetables, perennials, even moss — spurred by COVID restlessness and the desire to get their hands in the dirt. The impetus for me to add a new bed was the availability of manpower, specifically, the brawn of my 27-year-old son Nicholas, who fled the craziness of Brooklyn last May and stayed with my husband and me in Amherst for several weeks.

When we moved into a new house 10 years ago, I positioned my writing desk in a corner of the study with windows on both sides. The abundance of natural light was a joy; the view was not. My desk overlooked a gnarly bed of horrors: a sprawling patch of creeping euonymus duking it out with blackberry vines and opportunistic black locust saplings, backed by a stand of scraggly hickory trees. In early summer, a blanket of Mayapples sprouted under the trees, but these ephemerals soon wilted and turned brown and unsightly.

How could this be what I stared at for hours a day? The euonymus and its companions were not exactly inspirational. They shouted: We are an eyesore! Aren’t you going to do anything about us? But the task seemed insurmountable. As the years passed, I plowed my gardening efforts into less intractable parts of the property.

So when Nicholas came home, I got out my shovel and weeding claw and did some exploratory digging. It took me an hour or so to clear a small patch — about 3 square feet. I was cautiously encouraged. I figured that we could open up an area big enough for a garden of about 200 square feet shaded by the trees on the north side and the house on the south side.

Nicholas was game for the project. Every day we worked for a couple of hours, until the sweat running into our eyes was dirty and our water bottles were empty. As we hacked and pulled, we chatted about dinner plans and reminisced about childhood misadventures. The work was slow and tedious but instantly gratifying. Every day, a few more feet of clear ground to plant. When we had a big enough space, we dragged some slabs of Goshen stone from a bygone patio in the backyard to make a curving path bisecting the new garden.

Because I envisioned the space as a shade garden, I decided to dedicate a significant portion to epimediums, which have long been a favorite plant of mine. They remind me of plants that fairies might inhabit, with dense clumps of heart-shaped leaves bearing slender wands of flowers in various shades of yellow, purple and pink in the spring. The flowers are small and delicate, rewarding close inspection, and the foliage is often with copper or burgundy accents, depending on the variety and time of year.

Garden Vision Epimediums, a nationally acclaimed source, happens to be located in Templeton, about 35 miles from Amherst. I spent hours perusing its encyclopedic website that includes more than 140 species and varieties of epimediums that can be referenced by growth and habit, species, and foliage and flower color. Each catalog entry includes a color photograph and detailed information about the plant’s origins and particular attributes.

Choosing 15 or so plants (they’re quite pricey so I had to limit myself) from the mesmerizing array wasn’t easy. I wanted several varieties but not too many. I wanted hardy types that would be forgiving of my not so careful gardening techniques. I wanted interesting leaf shapes and colors. I spent many pleasurable hours making lists, annotating them, adding and subtracting. In the end, I arbitrarily picked three of this, three of that, three of this ... hit the “order” button and hoped for the best.

Nicholas and I made a field trip out to Templeton to pick up our plants. Of course, they did not even begin to fill the freshly dug space, and needed a large supporting cast. I called upon my gardening friend Nancy D’Amato, who has an amazing part-shade perennial garden in Shutesbury. I brought a couple of trays with me, but these were not nearly enough for the generous assortment of plants Nancy helped me dig out. Several kinds of primrose, ginger, corydalis, more epimediums, trilliums, geraniums and so much more.

As I was planting these treasures in the new garden I had a sudden uh-oh moment. Where was my shade? In late June, the sun’s path sliced directly between the hickories and the house. My anticipated shade garden was flooded with sunlight from late morning until mid-afternoon. I don’t know how I could have missed this after so many years, but I did.

Fortunately, the area closest to the house remained mostly shady, and I hastily moved all the new shade lovers into that space. (This exercise reminded me of one Christmas long ago when our older son, Tommy, was 3 years old and insisted that he would decorate the tree “by myself.” When he proudly announced that he was finished, we discovered that he had managed to cram every single ornament into a 24-inch-square space at the bottom of the tree. “Wow! Tommy! That’s great!” we cried. After he went to bed, we did a bit of strategic rearranging. He didn’t seem to notice.)

I moved several shrubs, including a couple of small hydrangeas that were languishing elsewhere, to the new garden. I continued to fill in the space throughout the summer. I asked Nick if he had any ideas for an informal border to mark the back edge of the garden. With the familiarity of a seasoned gardener, he said, “How about some rhodos?” So “rhodos” it was. I found some handsome, extra-hardy specimens at Baystate Perennial Farm in Whately.

Every year I make some effort to put my gardens to bed for the winter. I used to cut everything down to the ground, figuring that, with the clean-up behind me, I could hit the ground running (so to speak!) in the spring. But these days, in an effort to sustain birds and other critters through the winter, I leave most plants untouched. I like seeing the raggedy stalks that inhabit the garden in wintertime. While snow and ice don’t exactly enhance the driveway, freezing precipitation brings these botanical skeletons to life.

For the new bed, I splurged on saltmarsh hay for mulch. (Because the seeds in saltmarsh hay require salt water to germinate, they don’t produce a riot of weeds in the garden come spring.) As I cut the twine from the bales and began pulling apart the flakes of hay, snow was beginning to fall. Winter hadn’t even begun, but I was already anticipating spring.

As I sit at my desk each morning I admire my handiwork. And Nick’s. This is what is so wonderful about gardening. It connects me with family and friends, it allows me to experiment, and it fills me with satisfaction. On this cold gray Saturday, I gaze out the window and reflect on the past spring and summer. And I hope that my new garden will survive its first winter under its cozy blanket of hay.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.