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For The Love Of Gardening: Gardening Mentors



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Every beginning gardener needs a mentor — an experienced gardener with a mature garden full of plants they will happily share with the neophyte. My own mentors were Helen and Johnny Gill. They were generous to a fault with their plants and with their vast knowledge of plants. In my first book, A Patchwork Garden, I wrote of Helen that she was the single most influential person in my gardening life, and that the garden she made with her husband, Johnny, is the benchmark against which I measure all other gardens.

How surprised she would be that 50 years later, I am still thinking and writing about her. Helen never believed compliments expressed or implied and was amazed when I wanted to write about her in the first place. “Me?” she said, “I can’t think what you want to write about me for.” Shy to a fault, she was also highly intelligent and knew a great deal about plants. She was the plantsman and Johnny, who was an architect, was the designer of their garden.

It was a perfect marriage of talents and temperaments. Johnny was as confident and gregarious as Helen was diffident and reserved. But together they made a perfect team. He laid out the ground plan that wedded their lovely old house to the three-acre site and described deep beds that Helen filled with unusual shrubs and perennials.

At the time, many were new to me, especially the shrubs: treasures like Viburnum carlesii with its clusters of deep pink buds that open to white and smell heavenly; the exquisite tongue-twister, Rhododendron schlippenbachii, with flowers of the most beautiful shade of pale pink that open before the leaves come out; huge specimens of leatherleaf Viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum) that acted as a background for lesser shrubs. A bower of Carolina silverbell presided over the Helen’s white garden. She said to plant the silverbell where you can look up into its flowers, and I did. It is in bloom, as I write.

She was not specific about siting a pearl bush, but my Exochorda x macrantha, “The Bride,” is planted on a slight slope, and its arching branches seem to pour forth covered with sprays of perfectly round white buds.

In the Gills’ garden, these and other shrubs and small trees created a background for perennial borders full of wonderful plants like Amsonia tabernaemontana, a form I have never seen anywhere else. It has true blue flowers that are in bloom in May — in starry clusters two inches across. The foliage stays fresh and green long after the flowers have faded and turns a beautiful clear yellow in the fall. Of course, my Amsonia came from Helen’s garden. It was never safe to admire a plant because she would stump off to the tool shed to get a shovel and dig up a huge clump of whatever you had fancied.

The pale grey lamb’s ears edging my long border also came from the Gills, via an aunt of Helen’s who lived in Maine. Helen had a theory that every garden comes from other gardens. Established gardeners pass on plants and know-how to beginning gardeners, who in turn become established themselves and carry on the tradition. I know this to be true. Plants from my garden have found their way back Maine with friends. And no doubt my friends will pass plants along to their gardening friends. Helen Gill was always right.

Love your gardening, ’til next time!

Sydney Eddison will regularly be contributing a column in the upcoming weeks. She has written seven books on gardening. In addition, she collaborated with the Color Wheel Company on The Gardener’s Color Wheel: A Guide to Using Color in the Garden.

For her work as a writer, gardener, and lecturer, she received the Connecticut Horticultural Society’s Gustav A. L. Melquist Award in 2002; the New England Wild Flower Society Kathryn S. Taylor Award in 2005; and in 2006, the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut’s Bronze Medal. In 2010, her book Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older won the American Horticultural Society Book Award.

A former drama teacher, lifelong gardener, and Newtown resident for sixty years, Eddison’s love of the English language has found its most satisfying expression in four volumes of poetry: Where We Walk : Poems rooted in the soil of New England , 2015; Fragments of Time: Poems of gratitude for everyday miracles, 2016; All the Luck: Poems celebrating love, life, and the enduring human spirit 2018; and Light of Day: Poems from a lifetime of looking and listening, 2019.

Sydney Eddison in front of her magnificent Viburnum, in May. —Bee Photo, Crevier
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