Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: A garden for all to enjoy

  • Nancy D’Amato by the stump that she has planted with columbine and other Sedums at the North Amherst Library garden. “I just think it has coalesced into a soup of interesting mix of colors and shapes. It either applies to you are you think what a pointless mess,” said D’Amato. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The North Amherst Library garden. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy D’Amato by the stump she has planted with columbine and sedums at the North Amherst Library garden. “I just think it has coalesced into a soup of interesting mix of colors and shapes. It either applies to you or you think, what a pointless mess,” she said. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The stump that Nancy D’Amato planted with columbine and other Sedums at the North Amherst Library garden. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy D’Amato in the North Amherst Library garden, which she has extensively developed and tended since 2009. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL L OLLIS

  • An Iris in the North Amherst Library garden. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy D’Amato waters plants in the North Amherst Library garden. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Recorder
Published: 6/8/2021 1:52:43 PM

Most people who garden — newbies who started during the pandemic and veteran green thumbs — do so primarily to enhance their own private spaces. Whether they’re taming unruly backyards, sowing seeds in raised beds, or filling planters on decks and patios, they are creating and curating the planted environment in which they live. But some gardeners enjoy the rewards of planting gardens for public enjoyment, and for that we owe an enormous debt of gratitude.

One of my favorite public gardens in Amherst is at the North Amherst Library, which sits on a narrow, triangular lot at the busy intersection of Montague and Sunderland roads.

The library itself is an architectural jewel, built in 1893. It’s a multicolored Queen Anne-style, shingle-clad structure with a steeply pitched Gingerbread Gothic portico that cuts a dramatic vertical profile against the slate roof with its horizontal stripes of lighter slate.

A photograph of the library from shortly after its completion shows it sitting in an open pasture surrounded by a few trees; Montague Road appears to be little more than a cow path. The renowned local architect, Roswell Field Putnam, was born and raised a few miles up the road in Leverett. I can imagine his pleasure in concocting the design of this delightfully whimsical building and his satisfaction on seeing it fully built and open for the public to enjoy.

The library garden, although far less permanent than the building, is a similarly public endeavor. It was created by Nancy D’Amato, a longtime Shutesbury resident and member of the Garden Club of Amherst. D’Amato started the garden back in 2009.

“It was the library that I went to,” she explained. “The only thing growing there was the lilac bush by the front door. I asked if they’d mind if I put in a little garden.”

The little garden has grown substantially since then. D’Amato began by creating a horseshoe-shaped border of perennials and small shrubs in front of the library. She did not draw up any elaborate plans for the layout, preferring a more natural, free-flowing appearance.

“My basic plan was that the garden should be blooming from April through October,” she said. The color palette ranges from white and yellow to blue and purple. She has extended the beds since then to surround the building.

In the spring, large, vase-shaped tulips in purple and white accompany yellow primroses and purple ajuga. Lady’s mantle, alliums, baptisia and purple Siberian iris are among the next to bloom. Late summer brings monarda, echinacea and rudbeckia Henry Eilers, with its unusual quill-shaped yellow petals.

“I try to plant stuff that will bloom for a long time,” D’Amato said.

Throughout the garden are plants that have simply sprouted up from elsewhere, including columbine and billowing blue clouds of forget-me-nots. “I’m exceptionally good at accepting volunteers,” D’Amato told me. “Things have to be really ugly for me to rip them out.” She is especially fond of plants that self-seed. “Verbena bonariensis and nicotiana are wonderful late-season plants,” she said.

Interspersed with the perennials are a variety of shrubs that add structure and color to the garden. Deutzia, with its lime-green leaves and clouds of starry white flowers, is blooming now, along with lilacs and viburnum. Hydrangeas and burgundy-leafed smoke bush will come in mid-summer. After all the summer and fall colors have faded, dazzling red winterberries will offer a cheerful pop of color.

One of D’Amato’s favorite spots in the garden is the collection of plants that she has grown on and around the stump of a giant beech tree that was cut down around 10 years ago. “There was an ugly, barren stump about 8 feet across,” she said.

She set about to disguise it, arranging plants and shrubs around the stump that she took mostly from her own garden, including bright yellow Angelina creeping sedum, red Penstemon and burgundy sedum that now completely cover the stump, which is gradually composting itself. The color palette of yellows, reds, oranges and purples sets it apart from the rest of the garden.

Although the garden hardly calls out for more plants, she said she couldn’t resist buying a euphorbia with wine-red leaves and acid yellow bracts called “Bonfire spurge.” “It goes with the color scheme,” she said.

D’Amato noted that the most famous tree stump garden was created by Prince Charles at his Highgrove Garden in the west of England. The “Stumpery,” as it is called, consists of a series of giant stumps that were dug out from other parts of the property and artfully arranged and planted to create an unusual, prehistoric-looking woodland grove.

D’Amato acknowledges that her stump garden is nothing like Prince Charles’. “But if you have a big stump and you can’t remove it,” she said, “you can do something like this and turn an eyesore into something quite lovely.”

Community assistance

Over the years, library patrons have given money for the garden. The Garden Club of Amherst has also contributed labor and funding to the project. Local nurseries, including Andrew’s Greenhouse, have contributed perennials and shrubs. D’Amato has enlisted the help of fellow garden club members to help maintain the garden. At 83, she said she’s not sure how many more years she’ll be doing it and wants to make sure the garden will continue to flourish.

D’Amato, who has been gardening for most of her life, takes great pride in the garden and enjoys tending it. “It’s not a connoisseur’s garden,” she told me, explaining that it does not contain particularly unusual or finicky plants that she has at her house in Shutesbury.

“Gardens serve certain purposes, and one purpose is to make people feel good,” she said. “A lot of people see it and enjoy it. It’s colorful and gives people pleasure.”

D’Amato said that when the Amherst Survival Center was located across the street, people from there would often come and sit in the garden. College students are also frequent visitors. It means a lot to her when people stop by when she’s working there and tell her how much they like the garden.

“There are people who don’t have other outdoor spaces to enjoy,” she notes. “So this garden is important to them.”

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

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