An artistic approach to gardening

  • Tom Mershon designs and tends gardens in Old Deerfield, including at the Memorial Hall Museum. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • A Vernonia gigantea in front of Memorial Hall Museum in Old Deerfield grows to a height of 10 to 12 feet annually, which visitors frequently note is the tallest specimen they’ve ever observed. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Tom Mershon's many tasks as Museum Manager for the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association include tending gardens, which he does with aplomb using an array of plantings, containers, designs and vignettes. He takes a similar varied approach when creating multi-media visual art. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • When volunteers who cared for plants in front of the Old Deerfield Post Office moved on, Tom Mershon added those areas to his already long list of responsibilities as he devotes energy to beautifying the historic area. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

For the Recorder
Published: 8/29/2022 4:54:08 PM
Modified: 8/29/2022 4:50:28 PM

Tom Mershon produces artwork using a staggering number of methods, and a retrospective of his creative endeavors is on display at 10 Memorial St. in Old Deerfield. The exhibit is a feast for the eyes, as are the gardens Mershon tends at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s (PVMA) Memorial Hall Museum.

Born in 1952, Mershon grew up in Maynard. His father worked in maintenance at Fort Devens, and his mother soldered electronics for the Honeywell corporation. Mershon shared two vignettes regarding possible early influences. While his mother was pregnant with him, she took a painting class, “something she’d never done before and did not pursue after that one class,” said Mershon. “I like to think it had some effect on me.”

When he was a child, the interior of a supermarket where Mershon’s family shopped in Waltham was decorated with large panels featuring famous paintings. “Right above the food shelves hung huge pieces of art,” said Mershon, including a depiction of “The Sleeping Gypsy” by French painter Henri Rousseau.

The image of a woman sleeping peacefully under a full moon as a lion stands nearby stayed with Mershon, as did many other images. “I love observing things,” he said. “That’s how I’ve been my whole life.”

Before landing at his current, longtime post in Old Deerfield, Mershon worked at the Concord Art Association, Fruitlands Museum in Harvard and Gore Place in Waltham. He graduated from Massachusetts College of Art in 1985 and continues to take classes, including at the Worcester Art Museum, but he’s also self-taught, continuously exploring techniques and media.

While at Fruitlands, Mershon learned curatorial cleaning, “the behind-the-scenes work of keeping objects in pristine condition, which involves carefully removing, tending to and replacing objects with precision. While cleaning baskets in the Native American Gallery, we used a vacuum with a very special filter. It’s funny I went in that direction, because I didn’t like history in high school.”

The ability to focus intently influences Mershon’s horticultural practices, as well. In addition to designing and caring for gardens around Memorial Hall Museum, he tends plants in front of the Old Deerfield Post Office. “The people who volunteered for that task stopped doing it, so I picked it up,” he said.

Mershon’s main gardening endeavors, however, can be observed at the Memorial Hall Museum. “The 1797 building has operated as a museum since the 1880s. We’re the oldest organization in town,” said Mershon. “In fact, our building was the original site of Deerfield Academy.”

The museum manager for the PVMA for 25 years and garden manager for 20 years, Mershon inherited the garden position and has gone about it in an intuitive fashion.

One early change Mershon made was to remove tall grasses from in front of the museum. “Whoever installed them probably thought it was good to have something tall, because the building is three stories high. But I felt the grasses were too tall for that space and dug them out. The gardens are now very English looking. I just let things grow.” Though he rarely divides, Mershon occasionally moves plants to new spots.

Having seen a “children’s garden” at a Cooperstown, New York, museum, Mershon obtained funding to support the installation of a similar themed garden. “Frontier Regional High School students designed and installed an octagonal raised garden,” he said. “They constructed the frame at the school’s woodshop, and did the project as a form of community service.”

Mershon’s favorite plants in the museum’s garden include a variegated spirea, a hardy deciduous shrub in the rose family. “It’s gotten quite big, and always reminds me of Blue Meadow Farm in Montague, where it came from. It really thrives in its spot. In spring, the little white blossoms look like fireworks.”

Another favorite is a Vernonia gigantea, “the tallest one anyone’s ever seen! It grows to be 10 to 12 feet, with deep purple blossoms that look something like asters,” Mershon said.

Mershon appreciates native plants that attract pollinators. “I leave some milkweed and Joe Pye weed,” he said. “Some people find them straggly, but I don’t mind having them in the mix. We get a monarch (butterfly) fluttering by, so it’s worth it.”

Maintaining gardens involves challenges. “We had a drainage problem, and workers had to put in a culvert,” said Mershon. “We had to move two viburnum that had grown against the building.” When the time came to replant, Mershon built an espalier structure (a trellis on which trees or shrubs can be trained to grow in a two-dimensional, flat manner). “I intuitively kept cutting, shaping and pruning. We started with two viburnum, but one of them had a baby, so we have three. The spring blooms are so beautiful.”

Viburnum (a genus of 150–175 species of flowering plants) used to be included in the honeysuckle family Caprifoliaceae, but modern molecular phylogeny has led to reclassification in the moschatel family Adoxaceae.

Indicating large pots of lantana (in the verbena family), Mershon said, “They’re supposedly annuals, but we overwinter them in the basement. When winter’s over — even though they look completely dead, nothing but sticks — the lantana come back when exposed to light, heat and water. They just pop.”

When asked if other annuals behave similarly, Mershon replied, “Maybe some will, but the lantana have been the most likely to survive of all the plants we’ve tried it with.”

Referring to his horticultural domain as “the most photographed garden in Old Deerfield,” Mershon told of a woman who visits weekly. “She sends me photos, sometimes with poems she writes about the garden.”

This year has been tough on gardeners, and Mershon, who recently turned 70, is no exception. “It’s hard to deadhead in oppressive heat.” But despite sauna-like conditions, he’s kept up pretty well. “Tim calls me the Director of Happiness,” said Mershon, referring to Tim Neumann, his longtime life partner and colleague. Neumann is executive director of the PVMA.

Of his husband, Neumann said, “Tom’s art and gardens reflect that he’s a very joyful person. Even at the beach, he can bring a mother or father frolicking with their children to joyful tears with a gift of a quick watercolor portrait. He achieves his power for joy with unusual use of color and line — be it with paint or flower.”

Mershon is also known for his culinary skills. He prepares food for PVMA parties, including opening receptions and the annual dinner.

In the artist’s statement for his current exhibit, “70 @ 70: It’s All About Me,” Mershon says that he finds inspiration in “nature, gardens, everyday objects and people.” Visitors may view Mershon’s work on weekends through October, where the gallery is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope,” and an artist, musician and mom. She enjoys hearing from readers at eveline@amandlachorus.org.


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