Gardening in the 413: Growing with the Flow

Editor’s note: The spring-summer issue of our print magazine “Out & About with The Berkshire Edge” is now available for free at 140+ high-traffic locations throughout the Berkshires and beyond.  Our magazine focuses entirely on places to go and things to do. This article is a feature of that issue.

Ah, the gardening bug: Once bitten, forever smitten.

Now that another growing season has arrived, who among us isn’t itching to hone our skills and perfect our plantings? Gardening is, after all a rich potpourri of hope and joy and wonder. What was sown last year—or ten years ago—continues to flourish as well as flummox, with nature as our partner in time. It does humankind well to succumb to the vagaries of climate and soil conditions and, as such, be reminded of our place as cohabitants and cultivators. (Pity the gardener who is a control freak.) Time to grab your spade and shovel. 

“Of our 36 years in business, the past two years were by far the busiest and among the most challenging with so many gardening for relief and pleasure,” says Dennis Mareb of Windy Hill Farm, who was in the final throes of preparations ahead of the Great Barrington garden center’s April 1 opening. “We have been fortunate to have a dedicated staff that’s passionate about what we do and make this diverse business work.”

Indeed, whether as a brand-new pastime or more fundamental lifeline, our appreciation for gardening flourished over the past two years. Outdoor spaces grew in every dimension, becoming a soothing retreat from the news of the day and safe gathering spots in which to connect with others. We poured a record amount of money—and sweat equity—into creating lush landscapes, and not just for bragging rights: Working in the garden gave purpose to days, upon weeks, upon months, of newfound time. We learned to enjoy the process as much as the profit. Gardening was self-sustaining—even nourishing. 

Shoppers at Ward’s Nursery and Garden Center. Photo David Edgecomb

“Our customers are excited in anticipation of the bounty they will reap from their new and expanded orchards and vegetable gardens,” says Greg Ward of Ward’s Nursery, another Great Barrington mainstay.

Here in New England, where we are beholden to ever-shifting first and last frost dates, gardening synchronizes us with Earth’s rhythms. Pre- and post-season preparations (pouring over seed catalogs, nestling dug-up dahlia bulbs in cold-storage nests) satisfy our green-thumb inclinations until the snow melts away, the ground thaws, the mud dries out, the sun grows stronger. Like hibernating black bears, we emerge from our winter habitats to unfurl burlap screens, take stock of winter’s toll, and marvel at the peek-a-boo appearance of snowdrops and crocuses. Prudent practitioners consult last year’s journals to plot this year’s modifications and enhancements. 

The pandemic served as a reminder of how gardening brings us closer to the land—and each other. Meandering outdoor corridors at garden centers, friends old and new discussed the best way to rejuvenate a lackluster lilac or waning weigela and exchanged tips on no-till planting methods. Homesteaders shared surplus crops with passersby at makeshift roadside stands, or proffered plants they no longer desired—or had enough room for. 

“Last year we planted a million zinnias in the front yard so people could cut what they wanted,” says Lee Buttala, garden writer and author of “The Self-Taught Gardener” column for The Berkshire Edge. “It’s nice to be able to share what we grow with others.” Yes, gardening is rooted in community.

Stretching the Season

Looking forward, gardeners of all stripes are shifting their approach. “Spring used to be the nervous breakdown of gardening, when the goal was to get everything in the ground at once, then just sit back and relax,” Buttala says. “But frankly those same peak months are when we are partaking of all the wonderful cultural events and least likely to linger in the garden.” 

What’s more, our populace is no longer so migratory—a great many second homeowners have come to roost in the Berkshires year-round—and we’ve spent the past two winters cooped up at home, gazing out our windows. It seems our frost dates are happening earlier and later, too—the Farmer’s Almanac puts May 14th as the last frost date for 2022, while last year’s first frost didn’t happen until early November. 

Hence the groundswell for embracing a more intentional, multi-seasonal approach. Choose perennials, shrubs, and trees that bloom at different times and provide showy seed heads and/or fetching foliage after their flowers are spent. Leave holes in your garden beds and visit nurseries weekly, or monthly, throughout the season to add perennials that bloom at different times. That ongoing effort is part of the satisfaction. 

For Buttala, “Early bloomers such as hellebores, geraniums, and Cornelian cherry dogwoods are lovely harbingers and connect you to what lies ahead. Likewise, having witch hazel (for example) in bloom in November can provide warmth as you hunker down.” 

Cobae, or cup and saucer vine, is covered in blooms from late summer until the first autumn frost. Same for sweet autumn clematis, whose tendrils are eternal. 

Evergreens and conifers offer year-round interest beyond their frondescence. Buttala loves how sculptural the beautiful exfoliating bark of a Kousa dogwood can be in the dead of winter. Don’t overlook cold-tolerant grasses, too, such as quaking sea oats, amaranth, and Cape Rush, as well as natives like prairie dropseed and little bluestem. All are simple to care for.  

If having a barren backyard half the year is fine by you, know that early and late season plants are essential to supporting our at-risk pollinator population by proffering essential nutrients and nectar when they are needed most. End the season with a riot of annuals—birds and bees adore asters, sunflowers, ironweed, zinnias, cosmos, marigolds, rudbeckia, echinacea—plus single-flower dahlias and Dalmation foxgloves and Japanese anemones, which go on forever.

Heed, as well, the siren call to push fall cleanup until spring. You’ll be supplying food, water, and shelter for wintering birds and other wildlife; same for planting arborvitae, spruce, and other densely limbed evergreens. 

—Jenna O’Brien, Viridissima Horticulture and Design

Going Au Naturel

Relatedly, a grass-roots movement has home horticulturalists taking on the mantle of stewards in creating low-maintenance, long-lasting, pollinator-friendly gardens that are ecologically sustainable and guaranteed to thrive. Ward is seeing an increased focus on planting native trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, and grass-like sedges, and Mareb lists natives among his popular offerings.

Buttala encourages “roadside botanizing” to find what’s in bloom at different times of year in your neighborhood and at Barthomolew’s Cobble, a veritable treasure trove for early spring ephemerals like trillium, blue cohosh, and squirrel corn that bloom as early as March, before the trees leaf out. Take photos of what you see and like and use a smartphone app to identify specific plants, or inquire at your local nursery. Another tip: “Consider natives that are 30 or even 100 miles south—what’s hardy here now is changing.” (Ah, climate change.)

Max Rivinus, co-founder with Jeannette Dest of Penelope & Lloyd, a local garden and planter design firm, recommends practicing a mixed approach in which natives are combined with showier plants from around the world. “This will create a garden that is beneficial to our local creatures and also dazzling to the human eye, which craves big, bright, colorful flowers with long bloom periods.” In other words, experiment with plants other than those labeled as hardy for Zone 5 just because you love them. 

Viridissima Horticulture and Design. Courtesy Viridissima Horticulture and Design

Jenna O’Brien, founder of Viridissima Horticulture and Design, advocates achieving that “wild with style” aesthetic by growing in pots. (She shares her tenets in “Container Garden Design” workshops at the Berkshire Botanical Garden and other venues.) 

“Many of us in the Berkshires are fortunate to have a lot of space, and a well-placed container brings a hint of cultivation without having to overcultivate the landscape.” An avowed proponent of beauty and a non-purist when it comes to natives, O’Brien’s signature is introducing formal planters into a naturalistic setting. “I love it when you drive through a forest and a meadow and everything is wild and soft, then you come upon a stately home where the planters are the expression of the owner’s style.”

Containers afford flexibility—you can change what’s growing throughout the season or from year to year. “Don’t be shy about putting a big tomato plant in a whiskey barrel and underplanting it with marigolds and basil. Beautiful, functional, delicious, and not native,” O’Brien says. 

Apparently, it’s a trend: “This spring people are excited to perfect container garden desires with unusual annuals and tropicals,” Ward reports. “Can garden parties be far off?”

Seeking Inspiration 

Among the oldest in the region, Berkshire Botanical Garden features dozens of display areas on 24 acres straddling Route 102 in Stockbridge, with an emphasis on native plant collections that thrive in Zone 5b. Meander the footpaths in spring and summer, snap photos, ask questions. Check the calendar for hands-on workshops and special events, too., including the 45th Annual Plants and Answers Sale held on May 6–7. It’s a much-anticipated harbinger of the season.

People from all over flock to Trade Secrets, an annual gardening expo where you can find rare plants and garden antiques. This year the event is being held on May 14th at Lime Rock Park (its new location), in Lakeville. As always, proceeds support the work of Women’s Support Services in Sharon, Conn. 

Otherwise, Berkshire County is replete with gardening revelations well past the month of May. Naumkeag’s eight acres of terraced gardens and landscaped grounds, surrounded by forty acres of woodland, meadow, and pasture, are a sight to behold well into fall. The Tree Peony Terrace is fleeting but fabulous. (See page 58 for more about Naumkeag and other Gilded Age Cottages and their aspirational gardens.) The 120-acre Ashintully Gardens, located in Tyringham, is a blend of formal and informal gardens adjacent to a forested reservation; hike nearby Tyringham Cobble for more native notetaking.

Shopping the Nurseries: Sourcing Plants and Expertise

Nurseries and garden centers are fertile ground for unearthing new plants and tapping into the staff’s expertise. The following establishments, organized by location and extending beyond the Berkshire border, are all independent operations, often run by intergenerational families. You may spot a favorite or two among the list, but it’s worth branching out to explore unfamiliar terrain at other nurseries. And be sure to give thanks to these hardworking folks for keeping us growing nonstop. Hope springs eternal.

Berkshire County

A veritable gardening hub, Great Barrington boasts three longstanding operations. Third-generation Ward’s Nursery and Garden Center is a one-stop resource for seeds, tools and supplies, planting materials, and outdoor furniture and decor to round out its extensive selection of annuals, vegetable starts, perennials, shrubs, and trees, including a section devoted to natives. Ask the knowledgeable staff for help and sign up for one of the Saturday morning workshops. Landscaping design is also available.

Windy Hill Farm. Courtesy Windy Hill Farm

A few miles away, Windy Hill Farm—owned and operated by Dennis and Judy Mareb since 1986—is prized for its field-grown, hand-dug conifers and deciduous ornamental trees and shrubs, along with cultivars and selections from across the U.S. and abroad. (Martha Stewart is a long-time fan.) With an emphasis on fine-quality plants, Windy Hill offers standard varieties but those in the know go here seeking more unusual specimens. (The peonies and tree peonies are a particular point of pride.) Besides the nursery, Windy Hill has a blueberry field and apple orchard for pick-your-own foraging.

Dating back to 1961, when brothers Daniel and Stanley Taft purchased the arable land in the shadow of Monument Mountain, Taft Farms is now one of the largest producers of spring annuals in the area, growing most of them from seed on site. And Taft has “literally thousands” of hanging baskets to choose from early in the season. With sufficient notice, it can even custom-make baskets for you, allowing you to choose from all your favorite flowers. A working farm, Taft grows hundreds of different types of vegetables, including heirloom and specialty varieties, in its own fields—and sells the starts for home growers. 

With locations in Great Barrington, Claverack, Millerton, and Chatham, over 40 years of experience, and “hometown values & service” as its motto, Agway NY (a member of one of the largest agricultural cooperatives in the country) is a trusted source of gardening supplies at an affordable price. It sells mulch, compost, fertilizer, and other soil conditioners by the bag, gardening tools and containers, and a rotating selection of plants throughout the season. 

In Sheffield, family-owned Whalen Nursery has been providing over 40 species of field-grown trees and shrubs to the Berkshire-Taconic region for over three decades. It specializes in shade trees, evergreens, ornamentals, and fruit trees, including Donald Wyman Crabapple, Dawn Redwood, Higan Cherry, Sugar Maple, Sweetgum, Tuliptree, Littleleaf Linden, Eastern Hemlock, and five varieties of oak. Hours are by appointment. Tom Whalen also owns Sheffield Farm Products for bulk landscaping materials.

Join the pilgrimage to Campo de’ Fiori (“field of flowers”) for the Sheffield shop’s own line of hand-crafted terracotta planters, whimsical cast-stone and -bronze creatures, and other accessories. Owners Robin Norris and Barbara Bockbrader, a highly respected horticulturalist and plantsperson, infuse the two-story retail “barn” with rustic charm. Outside, Bockbrader’s ever-changing, enveloping garden is a naturalistic delight, with potted plants and statuary peeking out from masses of perennials—ideas that you can transplant into your own patch of heaven. The shop is open seven days a week; be on the lookout for its one-of-a-kind plant sales during the summer, too.

Lee’s own Clark’s Nursery, opened in 1984, carries a wide variety of its own annuals, perennials, and edibles/herbs—plus a seemingly endless array of hanging baskets, which tend to sell out fast. Its current location (having outgrown two prior spots) is conveniently on Route 102, a quick hop off of the Mass Pike or short drive from the village of Stockbridge—and right next door to Meadow Farm for mulch and compost by the yard. Owners Tina and Rodney Clark and (daughter) Brittany and Don Sumner are always eager to lend a helping hand.

Helia Native Nursery. Photo Lisa Vollmer Photography

Those looking for native (and rare) plants turn to Helia Native Nursery, part of the 109-acre Sky Meadow Farm, on the border of Alford and West Stockbridge. Founder Bridghe McCracken has over 20 years’ experience in land stewardship and landscape design (notably with Project Native before it ceased operation in 2015) and a mission to bring native perennials, trees, and shrubs to the public. In addition to purchasing plants from the nursery, you can roam the surrounding meadows on your own or during one of the workshops. 

Farther north, Whitney’s Farm Market & Garden Center is a bustling nursery that doubles as a family field trip. The long-running Cheshire treasure (spanning three generations and as many decades) sells the whole gamut of annuals, perennials, trees, and shrubs, plus supplies by the bag or yard (including stone for hardscaping) in a friendly setting. Make a day of it by enjoying lunch from the deli at one of the picnic tables under the tent or alongside the koi pond behind the greenhouse, then let the kids explore the petting zoo and playground. 

New York

A self-described general store, Taconic Valley Lawn & Garden sells a rotating selection of nursery stock and lots of gardening gear at its Route 23 store in Hillsdale. Go for the annuals, affordable prices, and customer service. 

Twin Brooks Gardens is a specimen tree and shrub farm in Clinton Corners, N.Y., growing nursery stock for the landscape trade on an 800-plus-acre farm, all available for shipping or pickup. The hardy, northern-grown mix includes, among others, evergreens, ornamental and fruit trees, boxwood, dwarf conifers, and viburnum. Longing to create your own orchard? The farm offers sustainable orchard planning and implementation, too.

The well-stocked garden center at Chatham’s Callandar’s Nursery sells a wide selection of trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and annuals along with garden statuary, outdoor furniture, and bulk blue or wall stone. Callandar’s also provides landscaping design and maintenance. 

Connecticut

In Litchfield, White Flower Farm has been growing a wide range of ornamentals since 1950, all available for delivery; gardeners here and everywhere await the arrival of its “garden books” (aka catalogs) year in and year out. 

Billed as the largest full-service garden center and landscaping service in Northwestern Conn., Salisbury Garden Center has a comprehensive selection of plants, including native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 

Old Farm Nursery. Courtesy Old Farm Nursery

A more intimate experience awaits at Old Farm Nursery, a destination nursery in Lakeville. May is an ideal time to stroll acres of display gardens on the lush grounds, which the nursery shares with founder and landscape architect Judy Murphy’s home garden. Landscape pros can venture across the road to Coyote Hill Farm, the farm’s wholesale nursery, for stock specimen trees and shrubs. 

At Falls Village Flower Farm, the “garden center” is a box covered by a climbing hydrangea. You are invited to explore the display gardens that demonstrate sun, shade, wet, and dry conditions—and to visit often and witness the succession of flowers throughout the season. Since 1997, owner and head grower Thomas Scott has been propagating and growing herbaceous and woody perennials, including natives and new varieties, all outdoors. Workshops are also offered and there’s even a bocce ball court for rent.

Having grown from a roadside stand to a full-scale garden center and farm market, Paley’s Farm Market—celebrating its 40th year in Sharon—is a must-stop en route to/from the Wassaic Metro North station for annuals (people swear by the pansies), perennials, and all the rest, plus seeds and supplies, gardening garb, and local pottery in the weathered, winsome shop. 

Over nearly three decades, O’Brien Nurserymen, in Granby, has become New England’s premier hosta nursery, displaying over 1,300 hosta varieties along with other shade-garden specimens. Buttala also touts its amazing collection of woodies, dwarf conifers, and Japanese maples, proclaiming O’Brien the go-to destination shop for discriminating gardeners intent on finding the rare and unexpected. Check the website before you go as the nursery is only open for sales on designated weekends from April through October (and bring cash or checks). 

What started as a backyard restoration project in 2019 grew into Tiny Meadow Farm, a small nursery in Fairfield County specializing in seed-grown plants and an emphasis on plants native to the Northeast. As a living seed bank, the farm sources seed for as many native wildflowers and grasses as possible to produce plants that allow you to conserve local flora and create long-lasting habitats. The nursery is open by appointment only, but you can order online from the catalog for Saturday pickup at the farm and two other locations, in Bethel, Conn., and Pound Ridge, N.Y. Consultation services are also available.

Southern Vermont

The Bunker Farm, an historic farm in the heart of Dummerston, produces annual and perennial flowers, including tried-and- true performers and unusual specialty plants—all grown using sustainable practices and mostly from seed. The small, family operation also produces pasture-raised meat and award-winning maple syrup and is an agricultural educational center for local students and the community. Plants are available for purchase from the self-serve roadside stand through May and June (stock will be limited after that).

Woman-owned Green Mountain Hosta & Natives (East Dover) is a small farm with a big reputation for growing over 400 varieties of hosta. After 20 years, the grower has expanded to also include a variety of native plants, “promoting a more balanced growing system and bringing in more birds and pollinators to our fields.” You have to place your order online for delivery or pick up at the nearby (and charmingly quirky) Dover the Moon General Store (at 4 North St.). Quantity is limited so order early.

The long-running (as in circa 1770!) Walker Farm (East Dummerston) has evolved into a horticultural destination for flower lovers from all over New England and New York State. The vast operation is prized for its garden and container annuals; rare perennials, trees, shrubs, and conifers; and organic heirloom vegetable starts. With 14 greenhouses, the crew grows over 1,200 annuals and perennials from seed and hundreds of varieties of propagated plants from around the world. In spring, the display gardens are a riot of color set against scenic views of the Connecticut River Valley. You’ll want to shop the farm’s seasonal farm stand, too, for its organically grown crops. 

Equinox Valley Farm. Courtesy Equinox Valley Farm

With the Green Mountains as a majestic backdrop, Equinox Valley Farm—on Historic Route 7A in Manchester—lives up to its claim as being “well worth the trip from anywhere!” The multi-generational family that runs it boasts horticulturalists, landscape designers, and master gardeners who specialize in flowering shrubs, fruiting plants, shade and flowering trees, evergreens, and dwarf and unusual conifers.

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