Gardens old and new: Learning at the hands of a master

  • A white grape vine hangs over rows of hollyhocks on the garage of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • Snapdragons in the four-square garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • Yellow day lilies in the north shade garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. Kevin Gutting

  • Snap peas growing in four-square vegetable garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • Orange day lilies in the north garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • A King Tut papyrus in the pond garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • Water lilies bloom in the pond garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. Kevin Gutting

  • The blooms of an oak leaf hydrangea attract a bee in the south shrub border garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • Platycodon, or balloon flower, in the garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • Mary Thayer’s four-square garden Kevin Gutting

  • Blueberries coming in in the south garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • Hens and chicks in the pond garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • A dicentra, or fringed bleeding heart, in the garden of Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • Hollyhocks provide a colorful facade to the garage at Mary Thayer's Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • A canna blooms in the pond garden of Mary Thayer, whose home is included on the Hadley Garden Tour on July 23. Kevin Gutting

  • Mary Thayer has a small kitchen herb garden just outside the door of her Hadley home. —Kevin Gutting

  • Mary Thayer sits in her pond garden flanked by, clockwise from upper left, a dwarf sargeant crabapple, dwarf japanese maple, a canna and water lilies. Thayer's home is featured on the Hadley Garden Tour on July 23. Kevin Gutting

For the Bulletin
Thursday, July 14, 2016
The particulars WHAT: The self-guided Hadley Garden Tour features eight gardens, most of which are on the Connecticut River Scenic Byway (Route 47). There will be special tours of Barstow’s Longview Farm at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., as well as a photography

Most gardeners don’t start from scratch. Instead, they often inherit a previous gardener’s choices, tastes and sense of design, so it can be hard to make the gardens their own.

For Rick and Mary Thayer, whose garden will be showcased on the Hadley Garden Tour July 23, a fortuitous encounter with renowned gardener Elsa Bakalar helped them put their own stamp on a garden with a long family past.

When the Thayers moved into Rick’s family homestead on Hockanum Road in Hadley in 1992, they literally inherited a garden — a series of gardens, actually — that have been in the Thayer family for seven generations, since the farmhouse was built in 1747.

Some of the plants and beds have been there for years. Others are new, or reconfigured. Each bears its own history, with mature stands of lilacs and decades-old perennials such as iris, peonies and phlox, sharing space with more recent additions.

Preservation and respectful change are the bedrock of Mary Thayer’s gardening philosophy.

“A garden is never static,” she said. “It’s always changing. Every year you have to move, add and even take out things. But the bones of it are here.”

A bigger challenge

Mary Thayer grew up in Amherst and became interested in gardening as a teenager. She majored in biology in college, specializing in plant ecology. Ever since, she said, she’s always had some sort of garden.

Moving into the Thayer homestead, however, she took on a much bigger gardening challenge than anything she’d tackled previously. A few years later, she happened to tour Elsa Bakalar’s garden in Heath.

She was so inspired by what she saw that she wrote Bakalar a letter asking if she ever taught seminars or classes. Bakalar responded that if Thayer could gather a few people together, she would be happy to teach them.

Thayer showed up a few weeks later at Bakalar’s house with a couple of gardening friends. For the next several years, the trio continued to do an informal apprenticeship with Bakalar.

As Thayer recalled, Bakalar was quite elderly by then and had a lot of garden to maintain. One day, Thayer said, Bakalar announced to them, “Now you’re my helpers!” Thayer and the others opened the garden every spring, tended it through the summer, and put it to bed in the fall until Bakalar gave it up.

“She shared so much knowledge with us,” Thayer said. “She had lots of strong opinions about gardening. Every day we spent with her was special, even apart from the gardening.”

Thayer said she learned much from the gardening master. “When I’m out in the garden I can still hear her voice telling me what not to do.”

Always something blooming

The most extensive garden on the Thayers’ property is the shade garden on the north side of the house. Bordered by a stand of towering pine trees and a mature lilac hedge, it has been there for many years.

This year Thayer added a Colocasia (elephant ear plant) in a large garden pot in the shadiest spot.

“I saw something like this at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is Sarasota, Florida, last winter,” she said. “I like how the plant is raised up above the ground to make a special attraction.”

Like Bakalar, Thayer sees her gardens as a steady progression of blooming from early spring through late fall. In the shade garden, Iris crestata arrive in early spring, followed by Dicentra (bleeding heart) and Heuchera (coral bells). In June, the pink, sweetly scented blooms of a Queen Elizabeth rose show themselves, giving way to popping pink Monarda (beebalm).

“There’s always something blooming,” Thayer said.

The Thayers put their own stamp on the shade garden 10 years ago, adding a low curving stone wall and a small goldfish pond with a circulating waterfall. Pink and yellow water lilies float on the surface. Pickerell weed adds a splash of lavender to the mix. Water hyacinth helps filter the water and keep it clean. They use no chemicals.

Thayer says she appreciates the role the pond plays in the local ecosystem. In past years, she said, honeybees from nearby hives would come over and drink there.

“It was amazing how many there were and how often they came.”

The rippling sound of the waterfall is soothing. “And it also blocks the noise of occasional traffic on the road,” she said.

Among the gardening techniques Thayer learned from Bakalar is the addition of annuals such as petunias, snapdragons and marigolds to fill in holes and provide splashes of color. Red-orange fuschia and double-white impatiens, for example, brighten the deep shade under the tall pines.

“When the perennials bloom, the annuals take a backseat,” she said.

She also relies on deadheading and trimming methods she learned under Bakalar’s tutelage. These promote reblooming and tidiness in the garden.

“When I look at a garden, I don’t like to think about what’s gone by,” Thayer said. “I like to see what’s blooming and look for the hints of what’s to come. I don’t want to see empty stalks, so I deadhead those.”

She explained that deadheading the pink and white-flowering Dicentra, for example, allows for continual flowers from spring to fall.

Thayer pointed to a mound of Nepeta (cat mint), whose delicate lavender flowers and bluish leaves had begun to open up and flop outward.

“I’ll cut that back soon and shape it,” she said. “It will grow back in as a nice mound with some reblooming.”

While adding their own touches to the garden, the Thayers are careful to preserve pieces of history. In the middle of the garden is a simple, white-painted birdhouse that’s more than 100 years old.

“Rick’s father remembers it from when he was a child,” Thayer said.

According to Thayer, a family of English sparrows inhabited the house most recently.

“It was wonderful to watch the babies being fed,” she said. “The babies fledged a few days ago.”

She pointed out the father of the brood perched in a dwarf Sargent crabapple tree bordering the pond.

And there are veggies

The Thayers’ vegetable garden also has evolved over the years. When they moved into the homestead, it occupied a large space between the house and the barn. They moved it to a space behind the barn and reduced its size.

Several years ago, the couple further transformed it by turning it into a formal four-square garden. The result is a brick-lined arrangement of four beds, each 10 feet square, with two rectangular beds along one side for asparagus.

Among the summer bounty are sugar-snap peas, squash, tomatoes and peppers. Yellow Gem marigolds keep pests at bay and also provide an edible flourish for salads.

“Gardens are like houses,” Thayer said. “It’s a matter of what pleases the owners.”

She admits her tastes have changed over time. “It’s like rearranging furniture. You move things around and see how they look.”

Elsewhere on the property are older garden beds containing generations-old daylilies and other long-lived perennials. Thayer has added many plants that were given to her by friends.

“It’s a nice way to remember people and places,” she said.

In the barnyard garden, weathered cedar posts that once were part of a chicken house now provide a visual anchor for the garden. One of Thayer’s favorites in this bed is Kalamaris integrefolia.

“Elsa called it ‘a daisy that behaves,’ ” she said, laughing.

With so many separate areas to tend, Thayer said she recalls Bakalar’s advice for staying on top of the garden tasks: “I pick one area at a time, weeding, deadheading and trimming until it’s all done.”

Thayer has a cherished garden video about Bakalar called “Portrait of a Gardener,” made in 1993. It keeps her mentor’s voice in her head literally as well as figuratively.

“I watch it every spring and it inspires me to get started in the garden,” she said.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.