Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Venture beyond your garden walls: Plant sales and noteworthy gardens to visit this season

The Garden Club of Amherst will hold its annual plant sale on the Town Common on May 18. In addition to shrubs, small trees and vegetable starts, the sale offers dozens of interesting perennials dug from the gardens of club members and carefully potted and prepped for the sale.

The Garden Club of Amherst will hold its annual plant sale on the Town Common on May 18. In addition to shrubs, small trees and vegetable starts, the sale offers dozens of interesting perennials dug from the gardens of club members and carefully potted and prepped for the sale. Photo by Elizabeth Anema

The Garden Club of Amherst will hold its annual plant sale on the Town Common on May 18. In addition to shrubs, small trees and vegetable starts, the sale offers dozens of interesting perennials dug from the gardens of club members and carefully potted and prepped for the sale.

The Garden Club of Amherst will hold its annual plant sale on the Town Common on May 18. In addition to shrubs, small trees and vegetable starts, the sale offers dozens of interesting perennials dug from the gardens of club members and carefully potted and prepped for the sale. Photo by Elizabeth Anema

By MICKEY RATHBUN

For the Gazette

Published: 05-10-2024 2:56 PM

After long weeks of yearning for gardening weather, we’re suddenly inundated by spring. Endless outdoor chores beg for our attention — composting, mulching, edging, scrubbing birdbaths and, at least in my garden beds, pulling out multitudes of maple seedlings. I don’t know whether this is a hopeless endeavor, but I keep at it, for fear that I’ll wake up one morning to find a maple forest growing around my house.

While we may be tempted to let these tasks keep us tethered to our own gardens, we must resist! There are so many wonderful opportunities coming up to venture out into the larger gardening world. On May 18, the Garden Club of Amherst (of which I am a member) will hold its annual plant sale on the Town Common. In addition to shrubs, small trees and vegetable starts, the sale offers dozens of interesting perennials dug from the gardens of club members and carefully potted and prepped for the sale. Buying plants at the sale has several advantages. The plants have thrived in our immediate vicinity, so you know they’ll be happy in our microclimate. And garden club members are happy to offer advice on all aspects of their care and cultivation. Best of all, with the price of plants at local nurseries skyrocketing, the Garden Club’s prices are hard to beat.

This annual event provides a pleasant meeting place for gardening friends to reconnect after the winter’s seclusion. It also draws in fledgling gardeners eager to dig a small patch, tamp in a few starter plants and wait for magic to happen. I always enjoy cheering on these beginners; it seems not so long ago that I was a novice, and in many ways I still am.

The best way to learn about gardening and garden design is to experience gardens in person.

We are lucky to live in an area where private gardens occasionally open their gates to the public. Visiting gardens allows us to fully appreciate all their sensory stimulations, how they look, feel, smell and sound. The variety of colors, textures, shapes and scents are infinite. A water feature may introduce the gurgle of flowing water, a surrounding hedge of shrubs and small trees can provide shelter for lively songbirds. And as you pass through a well-designed garden, you are carried along on a tide of perspectives and vantage points that shift constantly as you move through them. While photographs give us enticing glimpses, they cannot convey the ineffable sense of being there.

For the opportunity to enjoy some of the most beautiful and interesting private gardens in the area, check out the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program. Open Days features outstanding gardens all over the country, including more than a dozen sites in Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin Counties. The Open Days are scheduled from May 11 through Oct. 19; entry fee is $10 per garden. The charming Wistariahurst garden will also be open, free of charge.

The first Open Day, on May 11, will feature the much-admired Kinsey-Pope garden in Amherst, a marvelous tapestry of color, texture, shapes and sounds created by artfully planted perennials and specimen trees. The garden features a pond, gazebo, lovely stone Japanese lanterns, paths that weave through the half-acre space, and three bridges crossing over a stone-lined swale. A garden designed to delight in all seasons, it will also be open on June 29 and Oct. 19.

On June 1, six more gardens will be open, each offering a variety of rural, urban and suburban spaces that reflect the gardeners’ personal styles and horticultural passions. Maples of Silver Lane in Sunderland, for example, is what the owner describes as “a contemporary Japanese stroll garden.” According to the Open Days website, the garden features nearly 80 Japanese maples — nearly all of different varieties — planted among an assortment of rocks and dwarf conifers and a large hosta bed, all laid out to take advantage of an oddly shaped half-acre site. The garden includes a Japanese walkway and a modern tearoom.

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Also open June 1, the Earthworks Garden in Leverett will offer a very different garden aesthetic. The Open Days website describes it as a four-acre rural garden carved onto a steep, rocky, southwest-facing hillside at the bottom of Rattlesnake Gutter. The garden features mature trees and shrubs anchoring all levels of the slope, several outdoor sculpture sites and a 135-year-old revamped Lord and Burnham greenhouse. This garden will also be open on Sept. 28.

On June 29, one of the four open gardens will be Mary Chicoine’s garden in Greenfield, an example of the bounty and beauty that can be created on just two-tenths of an acre. According to the Open Days website, Chicoine started more than 10 years ago transforming a simple lawn and hedges into a garden of fruit trees, vegetables, shrubs, and sun and shade perennial beds containing mostly native plants. She added a Goshen stone patio with a pond to provide a place of rest in the closely planted in-town site.

One of the three sites open on Aug. 3 is a lovely urban garden in Springfield. As described in the Open Days website, the backyard space started out nearly 40 years ago as lawn with a few large pine trees. The trees were removed and container gardens, abundant hostas and colorful annuals have gradually taken the place of lawn. The space is divided into three small garden “rooms” featuring specimen trees, a brick patio and a “fern grotto.” The owners say that their aim is to create an English country garden feel in their inner-city neighborhood.

For more information on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days, visit their website: https://www.gardenconservancy.org/open-days/garden-directory. Tickets will go on sale a couple of months before each Open Day. The admission fee of $10 goes to support the incredible work of the Garden Conservancy, whose mission is “to preserve, share and celebrate America’s gardens and gardening traditions for the education and inspiration of the public.” The non-profit organization was founded in 1989 by the renowned plantsman Frank Cabot, a self-taught horticulturalist and financier, after his visit to Ruth Bancroft’s extraordinary dry garden in Walnut Creek, California. A lifelong gardener and creator of two world-renowned gardens, Stonecrop in Cold Spring, New York, and Les Quatres Vents in Quebec, Cabot understood the importance of preserving exceptional gardens for future generations to enjoy.

Mickey Rathbun is an Amherst-based writer whose new book, “The Real Gatsby: George Gordon Moore, A Granddaughter’s Memoir,” has recently been published by White River Press.