From choked jungle to prolific homestead

  • Digging a pond was the first project Mary Chicoine and Glen Ayers did together at their Greenfield home. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • A 12-by-20-foot greenhouse enables Mary Chicoine and Glen Ayers to eat fresh produce virtually year-round. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Wood, stone, wire, brick and soil are some of the elements contributing to the graceful beauty and utilitarian success at the Greenfield home of Mary Chicoine and Glen Ayers. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Glen Ayers built a deck to create one of many quiet spots at the Greenfield home he shares with Mary Chicoine. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Mary Chicoine and Glen Ayers transformed their Greenfield property from a jumble of invasive weeds into a tranquil spot. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Mary Chicoine and Glen Ayers at home in Greenfield with their dog, Twyla. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

For the Recorder
Published: 6/8/2021 1:41:37 PM

When Mary Chicoine purchased her home in Greenfield 10 years ago, “It was a mess, a complete jungle,” she said. “You could hardly walk through the backyard, which was filled with bittersweet and knotweed.”

Today, the Davis Street property Chicoine shares with her partner, Glen Ayers, is a different type of jungle — ordered, lush and inviting. Situated just north of the intersection of Pierce and Davis streets, home and gardens joyfully announce color, sustainability and possibility.

Two ponds contain fish and tadpoles, serving as “artificial vernal pools,” said Ayers. “We love hearing American toads who like to hang around the ponds.”

There are plenty of delightful places to relax: a stone patio, a picnic table, a wooden deck at the very back of the property and other little spots. Yet, Chicoine and Ayers are often in motion.

The first thing that meets the eye upon visiting their property is that the tree belt is filled with colorfully fantastic shapes. Plants include monk’s hood (also known as aconite), amsonia (from the dogbane family, producing gloriously blue blossoms) and the purplish spiky liatris, of the boneset tribe within the sunflower family, most commonly known as blazing star.

The spectacular tree belt also contains flowers familiar to most people: erect irises, feathery yarrows, resplendent lupines, delicate columbines and hardy echinacea. Filling out the section is goat’s beard, with alternate, pinnately compound leaves on thin, stiff stems, producing plumes of cream-colored flowers.

Lower to the ground are resilient sedums and lacy alyssums, punctuated by baptisia, a lovely plant from the legume family producing pea-like flowers, followed by pods. Beach roses, or rosa rugosa, send up intoxicating fragrance.

There’s boltonia, veronicas in both blue and purple, mums, teasels with whimsical spiky blossoms and the even spikier veronicastrum, also known as culver’s root, a native of Missouri.

“The veronicastrum gets really tall; The blooms last and last,” said Chicoine. Sweet woodruff, also called sweet-scented bedstraw, lives up to its Latin name, Galium odoratum.

And that’s just the tree belt. To peer into the rest of the property is to witness a microcosm of sustainability.

Neighbors who pass by on a regular basis enjoy moments of full-throttled beauty. People seeing it for the first time sometimes stop in their tracks and look around in wonder, as if to check whether they’ve wandered into a botanical garden. It’s not uncommon to hear passersby say, “Oh, my goodness,” or “I can’t believe how beautiful this is.”

In collaboration with and beyond the wondrous beauty is a lifestyle that might inspire others to enjoy the fruits of home labor while honoring a planet groaning under the weight of too many people who are consuming far too much.

All of this splendor didn’t happen overnight. On her own at first, Chicoine started small, taking out grass and privet out front. “That allowed for more sun,” she said, “and I slapped in a little vegetable garden.”

Growing up as one of five siblings in Southampton, Chicoine loved working in the home garden planted and tended by her father: “Since then, I’ve always had a garden, no matter where I’ve lived.”

Chicoine also comes to home gardening with knowledge and skill under her belt. She retired in 2018 from the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), where she worked as a land use and natural resources planner. Before that, she operated a landscaping business for 12 years. Chicoine has a master’s degree from the Conway School of Landscape Design.

Her credentials and experience help explain how Chicoine managed to turn a smallish yard into a veritable Eden, but there’s more to it than that. Deeply concerned about global environmental issues, she chooses to focus on her immediate surroundings, including her home, neighborhood and town.

“It doesn’t do any good to get overwhelmed.” she said, “I concentrate on what I can do right here.” Chicoine does a great deal, both at home and as coordinator of Greenfield’s Tree Committee.

The garden she tends with her partner puts food on their table for practically every meal. “During gardening season, I’d say about 90 percent of any given meal is from our property. Even in the dead of winter, each meal includes at least one homegrown ingredient.”

Chicoine and Ayers collaborate with efficiency and skill. “The first thing we did together was to put in a pond,” Ayers said.

“The one in back,” added Chicoine, to differentiate from the pond in front. “We dug the first pond as a test of how well we might work together.”

Turns out, they work quite well.

Ayers added, “The funny thing is, I had walked by this property, not knowing who it belonged to. I strolled by with some colleagues and thought, ‘I’d like to know this person.’ It really caught my eye.”

After installing their first pond, they built a stone patio. “We wanted to create a restful place,” said Chicoine. “Wow, that was hard work, moving all that Goshen stone around. It turned out so beautifully, though. Then, when we learned how hot it gets in that spot, we decided to dig another pond.”

From there, they put in “a few perennial vegetables like chives and asparagus, and perennial fruit like rhubarb,” said Chicoine, adding, “I make a phenomenal strawberry-rhubarb galette.”

They installed fruiting shrubs and trees: pawpaws, peaches, apricots, figs, cornelian cherries, beach plums, and a plum tree with four different kinds of plums grafted onto a peach tree. Chicoine and Ayers also grow blueberries, raspberries, and jostaberries.

For those unfamiliar with the jostaberry plant, it’s a complex-cross fruit bush in the genus Ribes, originating from three species: blackcurrant (R. nigrum), North American coastal black gooseberry (R. divaricatum) and European gooseberry (R. uva-crispa).

Lower to the ground are dozens of strawberry plants. When asked how many quarts they put up for the winter, Chicoine impishly replied, “Put up for winter? We eat them all in the summer.”

Chicoine and Ayers preserve food by freezing, canning and dehydrating. “We just counted how many containers of pesto we have in the freezer from last year,” she said. “We found fifty. I guess we can skip making more pesto this year?” Ayers added that he makes pesto from many types of greens, not just basil.

“We also grow annuals,” said Chicoine, “like tomatoes and beans, allowing for creativity and flexibility.” She uses roasted tomatoes when making pasta sauces and salsas.

“There’s nothing like the deep, complex flavors that result from roasting,” she continued. “I’ll never go back to making stovetop watery sauce.”

She also roasts peppers and onions when making sauces. Several years ago, Chicoine and Ayers installed a 12-by-20-foot greenhouse.

“It’s excellent for growing greens throughout much of the year,” Chicoine said. “We were inspired by a workshop led by Danny Botkin, an outstanding farmer in Gill.”

They started with low tunnels but found them inconvenient. “I didn’t want to get down on my hands and knees when I returned home in my work clothes,” she said. In the greenhouse, they sow seed in late summer and early fall: “Even with no supplemental heat, we harvest greens in March. And our eggplants and peppers love the greenhouse.”

Chicoine and Ayers implement sustainability in areas beyond gardening. They line-dry clean laundry, drive an electric car and catch rain in barrels. Kitchen scraps get composted, water is solar-heated, and another solar collector designed by Ayers heats an otherwise unheated cellar.

Like Chicoine, Ayers calls on personal and professional experience as he works in and around their home. He retired in 2018 after working as a regional health agent for FRCOG. Raised in New Jersey, he’s a lifelong naturalist with a degree in soil science.

“Glen likes to think things through very carefully and plan every detail,” said Chicoine. “And he’s more of an outward activist than I am, working to change systems and influence processes at the state level.”

Chicoine prefers to create habitats at home: “I plant native flowering shrubs, trees, and flowers so that pollinators will have access to blooms at all times.”

But she’s not exactly a homebody, either. As head of the Greenfield Tree Committee, she recently oversaw the installation of 25 trees at Elm Terrace and was involved with planting many young trees around Lunt Field. She also credits the Greenfield Department of Public Works and the city’s Tree Warden and DPW Deputy Director, Paul Newell, with those efforts.

Chicoine helped start a tree nursery on a rented parcel at Just Roots Community Farm in north Greenfield.

“We’ve got about a quarter-acre,” she said, “and hope to provide the town with high-quality, low-cost native trees. We’ve started with 50 trees and, in theory, at full production could provide about 150 trees a year.”

Chicoine likes to “address the big picture through the little picture. One thing I can do is lead the Tree Committee. I’d like to build capacity and get more people involved. I want to see not just campaigns or projects, but a widespread tree-planting movement and inspire people to help look after the trees.”

Chicoine and Ayers are incredibly hard workers, but they also know how to enjoy downtime.

“We’re off in the woods a lot with our dogs, Nyssa and Twyla. And we love going out in our Hornbecks — super light boats that are kayak/canoe hybrids, only 13 pounds each.”

Back at home, Ayers said, “My favorite time of year is around the end of July, beginning of August. Our little in-town yard becomes so exuberant we can’t keep up with it. I love it.”

Eveline MacDougall welcomes suggestions from readers for future Home and Garden stories: eveline@amandlachorus.org




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