Visitors to Betsy Feick’s garden on this year’s Forbes Library Garden Tour in Northampton won’t be surprised to learn that she is an artist. The pretty garden that surrounds her house flows gracefully from area to area, creating a sense of harmonious unity. (Details of the garden tour at the bottom of this story)
Like all my favorite gardens, Feick’s looks so naturally natural that it might just have appeared there.
But this is hardly the case. When Feick bought her home 12 years ago, she faced an obstacle that would have intimidated all but the most intrepid gardener. The builder who prepared the building site for the house in the late 1950s removed 12 inches of rich topsoil from the lot and sold it, leaving only sand. Feick later learned that the sand was part of a prehistoric Lake Hitchcock sandbar that runs through his neighborhood in Florence.
“It looks like a garden,” she said, “but in reality, it’s a soil building project.”
One of the first things Feick did after moving in was to save a young river birch tree in front of the house that was suffering badly from the robbery of the topsoil. Feick saved him 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 every year to keep it out of the house and other plantings.”
Gradually, Feick created pockets of fertility all around her garden, where she concentrated her clever creations. She uses a technique she calls lasagna layering, starting with a base of wood chips, then a layer of compost followed by a topsoil/compost mixture, and finished with a layer of hemlock mulch. In these flower beds, she combined native New England understory trees, such as pagoda dogwoods and leatherleaf trees, with shrubs and perennials to create “a sense of enclosed privacy. in the gardens.
“It’s basically an experiment with what’s going to grow here,” she said. “I have had failures, but also spectacular successes.”
It shows a Viburnum prunifolium tree near the north corner of the yard. “It’s one of my biggest hits,” she said proudly. “It was one of the first things I planted here.” Because of the poor soil in her yard, she chose trees that tolerate such conditions, including river birch, American shad, and black tupelo.
Feick did a major overhaul of the garden several years ago, adding a retaining wall and other landscaping.
“I needed to remove the elements that weren’t working,” she explained. She removed a dozen pines that might have been old Christmas trees, a weeping cherry tree and a few unidentifiable shrubs. She brought boulders and much more topsoil to enlarge and advance what she calls her heath hill (heath refers to acidic soil), home to acid-loving plants such as 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 benefit the plants in this part of the garden.
One of Feick’s main goals is to create a garden that welcomes the birds, insects and mammals that come to it. To this end, she mainly uses native plants, which are most beneficial to local wildlife. She tries to be at peace with a host of rodents eating the roots and crowns of plants, and foxes digging among the crested irises in search of burrowing mice.
“I don’t like their intrusions into the garden,” she says, 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 garden, she planted a patch of daffodils, hated by rodents, to deter them from devouring other plants.
Birds flock to her garden to feast on the seeds and berries produced by the plants she grows specifically for this purpose. Virburnum pruniflorium, for example, “produces berries that birds will finish in five seconds.”
In front of the driveway are patches of agastache, the seed of which attracts goldfinches in the fall. “I let it self-seed,” she said. “It’s such a joy to see these birds become happy.” She has several birdbaths around the property, some with solar-powered fountains. “They make a sweet, pleasant sound and birds and chipmunks love them,” she said.
The catbirds nest in an arrowwood viburnum in the food crop garden, where Feick has a sheltered seating area. “They’re so docile,” she said. “I sit here at night and listen to them sing and sing and sing.”
Feick explained that she uses a “loose geographical 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, winecups, bearberry, anne and prickly pear, all native to New England.
Native New England heucheras of all colors, shapes and sizes grow in abundance throughout the garden. “I have a real soft spot for coral bells,” she explained.
It favors the Americana species and its hybrids as well as Villosa and its hybrids for their hardiness and tolerance to less than ideal conditions. Americana has rounded, lobed leaves that are often multicolored with dark or light veins, or mottled leaves. The villosa have tiny hairs and are usually a single color, ranging from purple to reddish and brown.
Another of Feick’s prized natives is Phlox stolonifera, ‘Fran’s purple’, a lovely deep lavender hue unlike the more common paler varieties. “It’s hard to find any,” she said. “They hold their color longer than most.” More native perennials include early blooming twin leaf, geranium maculatum and butterfly weed.
Ferns are abundant in Feick’s garden, from tiny maidenhair ferns and oaks to the giant king variety. “Ferns are great,” she says. “They save you from having to weed.” A thick patch of hay-scented ferns anchors the corner of what she calls her secret garden, which is below and cannot be seen from the house.
The non-native plants Feick includes are his favorites, including daylilies from his mother’s garden and a non-native geranium whose pink flowers “bloom forever.” It also has several “totally mandarin” geums, a superb pink Rosa rugosa and a Rosa rubrifolia with dark, purplish leaves which produces abundant rose hips.
An elongated orange azalea in the food crop 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 finds unattractive. After cutting down a variegated dogwood she didn’t like, she was thrilled to see the unvaried volunteer dogwoods emerging nearby. She has grown and planted them in 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 frequently, but if a plant is growing well, she won’t divide it. She only waters seedlings and grafts. It mulches heavily every year or two, which not only conserves moisture, but also prevents weeds. “If plants can’t tolerate the occasional dry spell,” she said, “they don’t make it.”
Feick is a frugal gardener. When she sees a downed tree in her neighborhood, she requests that the resulting wood chips be brought to her garden. She trained a native Virginia creeper — an incorrigible spreader that’s a bane to many gardeners — to cover the chain-link fence behind her house. She admits it takes work to control the vine, but she loves its bright red fall foliage.
She also encourages the growth of calico asters, cutting them hard in early summer so they grow more compactly, sending up pretty yellow or purple daisy-like flowers in the fall that are prized by the native bees. Many people, myself included, considered it a weed, but now I know better.
Feick cleverly uses the stones she finds in her garden, some in small cairns, others in curved lines that serve as paths. A curved line of single stones runs through the center of a shaded bed in the food growing area. This subtle detail, like so many others, catches the eye in the bed as it defines the space.
Like his stones, Feick uses art objects as strategic focal points in his garden. In the backyard, a grass path leads to a large round “moon gate” which will be covered with clematis and a climbing rose in mid-summer. Throughout the garden are several handmade sculptures that she purchased from artisans on Etsy.
“I was going to do it 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 delights in the sounds of birdsong and water, the visual play of light and color, waves of intoxicating fragrance, and rich varieties of texture and taste. It is a space that can teach us many lessons about the layers of pleasure that can be woven into a garden.
The Northampton Garden Tour returns for its 28th year on Saturday June 11, offering self-guided tours of six outstanding home gardens. Tours are scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine, with proceeds going to Forbes Library in Northampton.
Tickets are $20 in advance (until June 10) at Forbes Library, Bay State Perennial Farm, Cooper’s Corner, Hadley Garden Center, State Street Fruit and Wanczyk Nursery. They are available on the day of the visit for $25 at the Forbes Library only. Book your tickets in advance at forbeslibrary.org/friends.
Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst attorney turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.