Visitors to Betsy Feick’s garden at this year’s Forbes Library Garden Tour in Northampton won’t be surprised to learn that she’s an artist. The beautiful garden surrounding her home flows gracefully from one area to the next, creating a sense of harmonious unity. (Garden tour details at the end of this story)
Like all of my favorite gardens, Feick’s looks so effortlessly natural as if it just appeared there.
But that’s hardly the case. When Feick bought her home 12 years ago, she faced an obstacle that would have discouraged all but the most intrepid gardener. The builder preparing the site for the house in the late 1950s removed 12 inches of topsoil from the property and sold it, leaving nothing but sand. Feick later learned that the sand is part of a sandbar from prehistoric Hitchcock Lake that runs through her neighborhood in Florence.
“It looks like a garden,” she said, “but it’s actually an earthworks project.”
One of the first things Feick did after moving in was rescuing a young river birch tree in front of the house that was suffering badly from topsoil robbing. Feick saved it with water and plenty of compost and mulch. “You could practically hear the tree breathing a sigh of relief,” she said. “Now I have to cut them back every year to keep them away from the house and the other plants.”
Piece by piece, Feick has created fertile niches around her garden in which to concentrate her artistic designs. She uses a technique she calls lasagna layering, starting with a base of wood shavings, then a layer of compost, followed by a mix of topsoil and compost, and ending with a layer of hemlock mulch. In these beds, she combined native New England undergrowth trees like pagoda dogwood and leatherwood with shrubs and perennials to create “a sense of closed intimacy” in the garden areas.
“It’s basically an experiment with what’s going to grow here,” she said. “I had some failures, but also some spectacular successes.”
She points to a Viburnum prunifolium tree near the north corner of the yard. “It’s one of my greatest achievements,” she said proudly. “It’s one of the first things I planted here.” Because of the poor soil in her garden, she has selected trees that can tolerate such conditions, including river birch, shade bush and black tupelo.
Feick did a major redesign of the garden a few years ago, adding a retaining wall and other hardscaping elements.
“I had to remove things that weren’t working,” she explained. She removed about a dozen pine trees that may have been former Christmas trees, a weeping cherry, and some unidentifiable shrubs. She brought in boulders and much more topsoil to enlarge and push forward her so-called bog mound (ericaceous refers to acidic soil), which is home to acid-loving plants like mountain laurel, leucothoe, and native azaleas.
Like most New England soils, the soil in Feick’s garden is acidic, but she added an organic soil acidifier to help the plants in that part of the garden.
One of Feick’s main goals is to create a garden that supports the birds, insects and mammals that come there. For this purpose, she mainly uses native plants that benefit the local fauna the most. She tries to live in peace with a variety of rodents that eat the roots and crowns of plants, and foxes that dig among the iris in search of burrowing mice.
“I don’t like their encroachments on the garden,” she said, but as long as they leave the house, she tolerates them. “They are part of the soil-forming cycle, after all.”
She doesn’t use any pesticides. In her food garden, she planted a patch of daffodils, which are disliked by rodents, to discourage them from devouring other plants.
Birds flock to her garden to feast on the seeds and berries produced by plants she cultivates specifically for this purpose. For example, the Virburnum pruniflorium “produces berries that the birds consume in five seconds.”
Up ahead on the driveway are patches of agastache, the seeds of which attract goldfinches in the fall. “I let it sow myself,” she said. “It’s such a joy to see these birds grow happy.” She has several bird baths around the property, some with solar powered fountains. “They make a nice, soft sound, and the birds and chipmunks love them,” she said.
Catbirds nest in an arrowwood snowball in the feed garden where Feick has a sheltered perching area. “They are so tame,” she said. “I sit out here at night and hear 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, which is also home to sweet ferns, wine cups, bearberry, pussytoes, and a prickly pear cactus, all New England natives.
New England native Heucheras of all colors, shapes, and sizes grow plentifully throughout the garden. “I have a real soft spot for coral bells,” she explained.
She prefers the Americana species and their hybrids, and Villosa and their hybrids, for their hardy durability and tolerance to less than ideal conditions. Americana has rounded, lobed leaves that are often multicolored with dark or pale veins or mottled leaves. Villosa have tiny hairs and are usually solid colors, ranging from purple to reddish and brown.
Another of Feick’s prized natives is Phlox stolonifera, ‘Fran’s Purple’, which has a lovely deep lavender hue in contrast to the more common lighter varieties. “It’s hard to find these,” she said. “They keep their color longer than most.” Some of the more native perennials include early flowering Twinleaf, Geranium maculatum, and Butterfly Weed.
Ferns abound in Feick’s garden, from the tiny maidenhair and oak ferns to the giant royal ferns. “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 cannot be seen from the house.
The non-native plants Feick uses are particular favorites, including daylilies from her mother’s garden and a non-native geranium whose pink flowers “bloom forever”. She also has several “completely tangerine-like” Geums, a stunning pink Rosa rugosa and a Rosa rubrifolia with dark purple leaves that produce copious amounts of rose hips.
A slender orange azalea in the food garden is underplanted with pansies. “I wanted some color in this part of the garden and its open structure allows plants to grow around it,” she said.
Feick does not hesitate to remove plants that she does not find aesthetically pleasing. After felling a variegated pagoda dogwood that she didn’t like, she was delighted when volunteer non-variegated dogwoods appeared nearby. She has cultivated these and planted them in her garden beds, where they provide anchor points among shrubs and perennials.
All serious gardeners have their own set of rules and practices. Feick said she moves seedlings frequently, but if a plant grows happily, she won’t share it. She only waters seedlings and transplants. She mulches heavily every year or two, which not only conserves moisture but also suppresses weeds. “If plants can’t tolerate occasional dry spells,” she said, “don’t do it.”
Feick is a frugal gardener. When she sees a tree being felled in her neighborhood, she asks for the resulting wood chips to be taken to her garden. She’s trained a native Virginia grapevine—a diehard creeper 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 heavily in early summer to make them grow more compact and sending out beautiful yellow- or purple-eyed daisy-like flowers in fall, which are prized by native bees. Many people, including myself, thought this was a weed, but now I know better.
Feick cleverly uses stones she finds in her garden, some in small cairns, others in curved lines that serve as paths. A curved line of individual stones runs through the middle of a shady bed in the food-growing area. This subtle detail, like so many others, draws the eye to 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 lawned path leads to a large circular “moon gate” which will be overgrown with clematis and a climbing rose by midsummer. Scattered throughout the garden are several handcrafted sculptures that she bought from artisans on Etsy.
“I wanted to make some myself,” she said, “but life is too short.”
The result of all these decisions is a garden that appeals to all the senses, not just the visual. Feick delights in the sounds of birdsong and water, the visual play of light and color, the waves of intoxicating scents, and the rich variations of texture and flavor. It’s a space that can teach us many lessons about what levels of enjoyment can be woven into a garden.
The Northampton Garden Tour returns for the 28th year on Saturday 11 June, offering self-guided tours of six exceptional home gardens. Tours run from 10am to 4pm, rain or shine, with proceeds benefiting the 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 only available at the Forbes Library on the day of the tour for $25. Reserve tickets in advance at forbeslibrary.org/friends.
Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based attorney-turned-journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.