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Watching her garden grow

  • A zinnia GAZETTE STAFF/Andrew J. Whitaker

  • Teresa Barton stands in the garden she has tended for 16 years in front of the Old North School House on College Highway in Southampton. She is retiring at the end of this season and hoping someone else will take over. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Profusion Zinnias GAZETTE STAFF/Andrew J. Whitaker

  • Zinnias


For the Bulletin
Saturday, October 08, 2016

By MICKEY RATHBUN

Anyone passing through the town of Southampton on Route 10 has surely appreciated the colorful border of summer flowers flanking the split-rail fence that runs in front of the Old North Schoolhouse and Museum.

More than likely, passersby have noticed a slender, bespectacled, silver-haired woman working among the flowers. That would be Terry Barton, who started the garden 16 years ago and has been tending it with a loyal group of helpers ever since.

Barton is a can-do person. She launched the garden quite by chance several years after she and her husband, Hank, moved from Springfield to Southampton in 1996. Back then, she explained, the Southampton Highway Department planted a row of bright-yellow marigolds every summer along Route 10 in front of the white clapboard, neoclassical one-room schoolhouse. “One year,” she recalled, “there were no more flowers.”

“I went into the Highway Department and asked what had happened to the flowers,” she said. “The person at the desk told me they did not have enough manpower to continue the planting. So I said, ‘I’ll do it!’ ”

That was the beginning of a long and rewarding gardening project that has brought pleasure to thousands of people.

Barton is quick to point out that she has a lot of help with the garden.

“There’s a group of very loyal people, mostly women, who do this with me,” she said. “It’s a community effort.”

Even so, she says, she’s ready to relinquish the responsibility, and hopes someone else will step up to keep the gardens going.

Start with a plan

Like most gardens, Barton’s has evolved. For the first few years, she used only a couple of different annuals, “to keep things simple.” Then, she explained, she wanted more variety, so she held a fundraiser to support the expanding garden.

“I created a database of all the people I knew in the area and local businesses. I’m a painter, so I did a watercolor of the schoolhouse and garden and made it into a postcard that I sent to everyone on my list.”

Her fundraising efforts were successful.

“People were very generous,” she said. ” There were contributions ranging from $5 to $100.”

Since then, Barton has raised money every five years or so, and she now has a surplus of more than $2,000 in the budget.

She orders her plants every January from a couple of local providers, Shiel Farm and Greenhouses and White Flower Farm, both in Southampton.

“I’m committed to supporting Southampton businesses,” she said. “Sometimes I need 144 of one plant, or 72 of another. The women who run these businesses are always very obliging.”

Barton and her helpers share the work of planting, weeding and watering the border. Her husband brings soaker hoses from their house and attaches them to a spigot at the fountain at the north end of the border.

She explained that she waters very thoroughly with the soaker hoses, but only occasionally.

“Some people make the mistake of watering a little bit every day. This causes the plants to have shallow roots that need to be watered everyday or they dry up. The plants here have deeper roots so they can withstand dryer weather.”

Barton picks up the plants the first week in June. Town employees till the border and she and several helpers add peat and fertilizer and put the plants in the ground, a process, she says, that takes about three hours.

Barton and her helpers also plant and tend the flower boxes at Sheldon’s Ice Cream, just south of the schoolhouse, as well as the flowers and shrubs surrounding the pavilion behind the Southampton library.

Be flexible

Every year Barton sketches out a couple of schemes for the garden that she alternates every 12 feet or so. “We pass these back and forth to look at as we put in the plants.” The result is a loosely structured but natural arrangement of plants.

She said that for several years she tried to have a different color theme every year. But her tall, feathery-flowered cleomes reseeded every year, “adding shades of pink and purple that didn’t necessarily work well with my plan.”

Eventually, she said, she decided to use only white cleomes so there’s no clash of colors.

“Now I think of it as a white, purple, pink and yellow garden.”

As an aside, Barton related an amusing story about the cleomes: “A few years ago I got a phone call from one of the secretaries in Town Hall. She said, ‘There’s a guy here who pulled up one of your flowers and wants to know what it is.’ I told him and he went away happy,” said Barton, adding, “I thought he had a lot of chutzpah to just pull up one of my plants!”

Barton said she has tried a lot of different plants over the years, “but now I stick with the tried and true.” She uses only annuals, explaining that perennials have short bloom periods and are more difficult to maintain.

“The annuals don’t come into their own until mid-July, but then they’re spectacular till the frost comes in the fall.”

She uses a variety of heights and textures to create visual interest. She said her absolute favorites are zinnias, which she plants in brilliant shades of pink, red and yellow.

“They make the most beautiful summer bouquets,” she said.

She plants ordinary tall zinnias as well as “Profusion” zinnias, which create smaller mounds of dense blossoms.

Barton favors greenish-yellow sweet potato vines, which hug the ground and provide a dazzle of almost neon color. She intersperses tall wands of blue salvia and stalks of purple-flowered Verbena bonariensis with wave petunias that, true to their name, form tumbling masses of blooms.

“I love the habit of the Verbena bonariensis. It’s tall and blows in the breeze,” she said.

Another breeze catcher is an annual grass that sends up fountains of wine-colored blades topped with fuzzy golden seed heads.

“We get a lot of breeze right here,” she said. “The grass brings movement and life to the garden.”

Time for a change

Barton retired 10 years ago from her job teaching mathematics at Western New England College. She has no formal horticultural training, but said she’s learned by experience. She and her husband maintain an extensive flower and vegetable garden at their home nearby.

Working in the garden is immensely satisfying, Barton said.

“People go by and toot their horns and call out, ‘It’s so beautiful! Thank you!’ ... And when I have a fundraiser I get wonderful notes from people telling me what great work I’m doing. Being appreciated like that is what keeps me going.”

Although she has been devoted to the garden for 16 years, she says she hopes someone else will step up and take over, just as she did when the Highway Department ceased its marigold planting.

She explained that she has many other community commitments, including serving as a trustee of the Southampton Library, a volunteer at the Smith Botanic Garden and on a board of directors at Smith College. She also participates in several book groups and seminars.

“The garden would be perfect for a couple of people or a small group,” she said. “People have been very generous and willing to help, so that the garden doesn’t take a lot of work.”

She said she will be happy to advise her successors, and even to do some work.

“It’s a wonderful project and I would hate to see it not continue. But I’m getting old and I have other things I’m involved in.”

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

Anyone interested in managing the Southampton garden should contact Terry at tdbarton@charter.net.