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Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: A look at one of 6 gardens to be featured at Northampton Garden Tour on June 11

  • Betsy Feick in her garden in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An Azulia in Betsy Feick's garden in Northampton Monday afternoon, May 23, 2022 . STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Talinum growing in the driveway cracks at Betsy Feick's home and garden in Northampton Monday afternoon, May 23, 2022 . —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A stone path, one of several, winds through part of Feick’s garden. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Betsy Feick in her garden in Florence on Monday afternoon, May 23. Feick describes much of her work on the garden as a “soil-building project.” STAFF PHOTOSCAROL LOLLIS


Monday, June 13, 2022

Visitors to Betsy Feick’s garden on this year’s Forbes Library Garden Tour in Northampton will not be surprised to learn that she is an artist. The lovely garden that surrounds her house flows gracefully from one area to the next, creating a sense of harmonious unity. (Garden tour details at the bottom of this story)

Like all my favorite gardens, Feick’s appears so effortlessly natural that it might have simply appeared there.

But that is hardly the case. When Feick bought her house 12 years ago, she faced an obstacle that would have daunted all but the most intrepid gardeners. The builder who prepared the construction site for the house back in the late 1950s stripped 12 inches of rich topsoil from the lot and sold it, leaving nothing but sand. Feick later learned that the sand is part of a sandbar from the prehistoric Hitchcock Lake that runs through her Florence neighborhood.

“This looks like a garden,” she said, “but really it’s a soil-building project.”

One of the first things Feick did after moving in was to rescue a young river birch in front of the house that was suffering badly from the topsoil heist. Feick saved it with water and generous amounts of compost and mulch. “You could practically hear the tree breathe a sigh of relief,” she said. “Now I have to prune it back every year to keep it off the house and the other plantings.”

Bit by bit, Feick has created pockets of fertility all around her yard, where she has concentrated her artful designs. She uses a technique she calls lasagna layering, starting with a base of woodchips, then a layer of compost followed by a topsoil/compost blend, and finished off with a layer of hemlock mulch. In these beds she has combined New England native understory trees such as pagoda dogwoods and leatherwood trees with  shrubs and perennials to create “a sense of enclosed intimacy” within the garden areas.

“It’s basically an experiment with what will grow here,” she said. “I’ve had some failures, but also some spectacular successes.”

She points to a Viburnum prunifolium tree near the north corner of the yard. “This is one of my biggest successes,” she said proudly. “It’s one of the first things I planted here.” Because of the poor soil in her yard, she has chosen trees that tolerate such conditions, including river birch, shadbush and black tupelo.

Feick did a major garden redesign several years ago, adding a retaining wall and other hardscaping.

“I needed to remove things that weren’t working,” she explained. She took out about a dozen pine trees that might have been former Christmas trees, a weeping cherry, and few unidentifiable shrubs. She brought in boulders and a lot more topsoil to enlarge and bring forward what she calls her ericaceous hill (ericaceous refers to acidic soil), which is home to acid-loving plants such as mountain laurel, leucothoe and native azaleas.

Like most New England soil, the soil in Feick’s garden is acidic, but she added an organic soil acidifier to benefit the plants in this part of the garden.

One of Feick’s primary aims is to create a garden that supports birds, insects and mammals that come there. To that end, she uses mostly native plants, which are most beneficial to local fauna. She tries to be at peace with a host of rodents that eat the roots and crowns of plants, and foxes who dig among the crested iris in search of burrowing mice.

“I don’t love their intrusions in the garden,” she said, but as long as they stay out of the house she tolerates them. “They are part of the soil-building cycle after all.”

She uses no pesticides. In her food-growing garden she has planted a patch of daffodils, disliked by rodents, to deter them from devouring other plants.

Birds flock to her garden to feast on the seeds and berries produced by plants she cultivates specifically for that purpose. The Virburnum pruniflorium for example, “produces berries that the birds will finish off in five seconds.”

Out front by the driveway are patches of agastache whose seed draws goldfinches in the fall. “I let it self-sow,” she said. “It’s such a joy watching those birds get happy.” She has several birdbaths around the property, some with solar-powered fountains. “They make a lovely, gentle sound and the birds and chipmunks love them,” she said.

Catbirds nest in an arrowwood viburnum in the food-growing garden, where Feick has a sheltered sitting area. “They’re so tame,” she said. “I sit out here in the evening and listen to them sing and sing and sing.”

Feick explained that she uses a “loose geographic interpretation of the word ‘native’” to include some prairie and Western species. These plants grow happily in the sunny, sandy rock garden in front of the house that’s also home to sweet fern, wine cup, bearberry, pussytoes and a prickly pear cactus, all New England natives.

New England native heucheras of all colors, shapes and sizes grow abundantly throughout the garden. “I have a real weakness for coral bells,” she explained.

She favors the Americana species and its hybrids as well as Villosa and its hybrids for their sturdy durability and tolerance of less-than-ideal conditions. Americana have rounded, lobed leaves that are often multicolored with dark or pale veins, or mottled leaves. Villosa have tiny hairs and usually are one color, ranging from purple to reddish and brown.

Another of Feick’s treasured natives is Phlox stolonifera, “Fran’s purple,” of a lovely deep lavender shade unlike the more common paler varieties. “It’s hard to find these,” she said. “They hold their color longer than most others.” More native perennials include the early blooming twinleaf, geranium maculatum and butterfly weed.

Ferns are plentiful in Feick’s garden, from the diminutive maidenhair and oak ferns to the giant Royal variety. “Ferns are great,” she said. “They keep you from having to weed.” A dense patch of hay-scented fern anchors the corner of what she calls her secret garden, which is sunken and can’t be seen from the house.

The non-native plants that Feick includes are special favorites, including daylilies from her mother’s garden and a non-native geranium whose pink flowers “bloom forever.” She also has several “totally tangerine” geums, a stunning pink Rosa rugosa and a Rosa rubrifolia with dark, purplish leaves that produces abundant rose hips.

A rangy orange azalea in the food-growing garden is underplanted with pansies. “I wanted some color in that part of the garden and its open structure allows plants to grow up around it,” she said.

Feick doesn’t hesitate to remove plants that she doesn’t find aesthetically pleasing. After she cut down a variegated pagoda dogwood that she didn’t like, she was delighted to see volunteer non-variegated dogwoods emerge nearby. She has cultivated these and planted them throughout her garden beds where they provide anchoring focal points among shrubs and perennials.

All serious gardeners have their own rules and practices. Feick said she moves seedlings around frequently, but if a plant is growing happily she won’t divide it. She only waters seedlings and transplants. She mulches heavily every year or two, which not only conserves moisture, but keeps down weeds. “If plants can’t tolerate occasional dry spells,” she said, “they don’t make it.”

Feick is a frugal gardener. When she sees a tree being cut down in her neighborhood, she asks that the resulting wood chips be brought to her garden. She has trained a native Virginia creeper vine — an incorrigible spreader that’s a scourge to many gardeners — to cover the chain link fence behind her house. She admits it takes some work to keep the vine in check, but she loves its bright red fall foliage.

She also encourages calico asters to grow, cutting them back hard in early summer so that they grow more compactly, sending out lovely yellow or purple-eyed daisy-like flowers in the fall that are prized by native bees. Many people, including myself, have considered this a weed, but now I know better.

Feick makes artful use of stones she finds in her garden, some in small cairns, others in bending lines that serve as paths. A curved line of single stones run through the center of a shaded bed in the food-growing area. This subtle detail, like so many others, draws the eye into the bed as it defines the space.

Like her stones, Feick uses art objects as strategic focal points in her garden. In the backyard, a grass path leads to a big round “moon gate” that will be covered with clematis and a climbing rose by midsummer. Throughout the garden are several handmade sculptures that she bought from artisans on Etsy.

“I was going to make some myself,” she said, “but life is too short.”

The result of all these choices is a garden that appeals to all the senses, not just the visual. Feick takes pleasure in the sounds of birdsong and water, the visual play of light and color, the waves of intoxicating scent and the rich varieties of texture and taste. It’s a space that can teach us many lessons about the layers of enjoyment that can be woven into a garden.

Garden Tour details

The Northampton Garden Tour returns for its 28th year on Saturday, June 11, offering self-guided tours of six exceptional home gardens. The tours are scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine, with proceeds benefiting Forbes Library in Northampton.

Tickets are $20 in advance (through June 10) at Forbes Library, Bay State Perennial Farm, Cooper's Corner, Hadley Garden Center, State Street Fruit and Wanczyk Nursery. They are available the day of the tour for $25 at Forbes Library only. Reserve tickets in advance at forbeslibrary.org/friends.

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