Looking for inspiration for your backyard garden?
On Saturday, during the ninth annual Soroptimist International of Schenectady’s “Gardens & Gazebos” Tour, you can visit nine exceptional gardens — five in Niskayuna, two in Schenectady and one each in Rotterdam and Glenville. Each of the homeowners have reshaped their yards to reflect their love of gardening and their own tastes, with each garden as different as the individual gardeners themselves.
Visitors can explore a secret garden, a kitchen garden, gazebos, a rose garden, a low-maintenance Adirondack garden, an Asian-themed garden with koi pond and bridge, a vegetable garden, a lush tropical garden reminiscent of Southeast Asia with four varieties of bamboo, and a yard with garden rooms formed by shrubs, rocks and refurbished benches rescued from the trash.
Sarah and Tom Straw will open their yard to visitors this year. When the couple moved from Charlton to their Glenville home 10 years ago, they began reshaping the landscape. Unlike their previous home, the new one had a large vegetable garden as well as perennial gardens — the types of gardens Sarah grew up with. Their new house had a great deal of lawn in the front and a few geraniums, hedges and trees, and extensive woods and overgrowth in the backyard.
Soroptimist International of Schenectady’s ’Gardens & Gazebos’ Tour
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Nine gardens in Niskayuna, Rotterdam, Schenectady and Glenville
HOW MUCH: Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 on the day of the event at Experience & Creative Design, The Open Door Bookstore and Felthousen’s Florist in Schenectady; Kulak Nursery & Landscaping in Rexford; Scott’s Hallmark in Glenville; Oliver’s Café in Scotia; and Petal Pusher Florist in Burnt Hills or by contacting Frieda Tanski at 885-9710. Tickets can also be purchased the day of the tour at the Woodcock Garden, 1061 Mohawk Road, Niskayuna.
MORE INFO: www.soroptimistofschenectady.org
In the past decade, with the couple’s patience and hard work, they have, little by little, transformed the frontyard into mostly garden beds and the backyard into a woodland haven.
They brought plants from their old house, which Sarah planted along the perimeter. She also took some plants from her mother’s garden. She pulled out pieces of sod and transferred them to the backyard, then brought compost in for the plants.
In the frontyard, there is a big bed around a silver maple, with stone steps leading up to an Adirondack bench that they built themselves. A Japanese maple and two crab apples grace two of the other beds.
The selection of plants is a combination of what the soil requires as well as Sarah’s preferences — pinks and purples with some yellow, but plenty of color all around. The plot next to the driveway has what Sarah describes as rather harsh conditions, with severe drainage due to sand in the soil and exposure to the hottest afternoon sun in the summer. She has planted a host of resilient plants there, like succulents, along with variegated dogwood, a flowering Spirea, fragrant yellow lilies, hostas, and a small ornamental blue spruce that grows in a bird’s nest shape close to the ground.
The centerpiece of the frontyard is a pond they installed. They replaced blue spruces that died last season with some ornamental Japanese grasses and ferns. There is also a Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), an herbaceous ornamental plant that will bloom with tiny chartreuse flowers. “When it gets dew on the edges of its leaves, it looks like it has diamonds on its leaves,” Sarah said.
The border along the edge of the property is lined with rocks that they collected from friends. There is an abundance of plants that bloom at different times and provide a variety of colors. There are sand cherries with reddish-purplish leaves, a Rose of Sharon, peonies that Sarah dug out of the lawn and divided, Happy Returns daylilies, a pink phlox with pale pink petals and a hot-pink eye zone called Bright Eyes, and a Joe Pye Weed — a late bloomer with a black stem. There is a catmint that blooms in early summer and then repeats, a dark variety of eupatorium, silver princess daisies that Sarah grew from seeds, a serviceberry, native wild geraniums, Golden Alexanders with umbels of yellow flowers and shiny green leaves, and a rose campion with magenta-colored flowers.
Some of the plants are like souvenirs, purchased from places they have visited, such as the Landis Arboretum in Esperance and the Berkshire Botanical Gardens.
Sarah said that when she had more time, she used to be more of a “student” when it came to gardening, keeping maps and other notes, but these days she’s given up worrying exactly what a plant is, although you wouldn’t know it as she wanders through the garden naming plant after plant with their special characteristics and growing needs.
The backyard has a slope of lawn that gives way to a natural woodland garden, where she and Tom have made paths that meander through the long stretch of property. “This is really where I like to spend my time,” Sarah said.
Visitors will see some remnants of the “tangled mess” that was the backyard, namely grapevines climbing up the elm tree and piles of branches at the back of the property, which give visitors an idea of the amount of work they have done.
“You couldn’t even tell the elm was there,” Sarah said of the property when they first moved in. Sarah, Tom and their son removed the rose bushes and grapevines to make way for garden beds that would flank meandering paths through a woodland garden they would create.
They started with a main path in the middle and then planted gardens along it. “It has been a lot of removing and some of putting in,” Sarah said. She left some things, a dogwood, sumac and rum cherry tree with its rough, interesting bark, to name a few.
“There were some things in here that were cool,” Tom said. Bit by bit, they began planting other things. There are wild tiger lilies with their cascade of orange flowers, pink dragon flowers, sergeant crabs that she planted from sticks, Francis Williams hostas, a mocha-colored geranium, different varieties of pulmonaria, wild lettuce, lily of the valley, large bleeding heart plants, and sweet woodruff with tiny white clusters of flowers that carpet the ground with star-shaped leaves.
Other plants include a lunaria annua — also called the “money plant,” that is a favorite for dried arrangements because of its seed pods that dry to a translucent silver, various native sedges, a Lenten rose, tiarella or “foamflower” that does really well as a ground cover, Jack Frost, two different colors of Jack in the Pulpit and balsam trees from the Native Plant Project in Massachusetts.
The Straws considered the wildlife, too, planting an elderberry plant that the birds favor, and leaving the honeysuckles despite their invasiveness because they provide cover for the birds.
Scattered throughout the gardens are various ornaments, including a rustic table and chairs, an old bicycle painted blue, wind chimes and a stick structure that Sarah is coaxing the wild clematis to climb.
The work continues as Sarah brings in new plants, such as sweet rocket and fleabane, two biennials that she would like to grow into a whole colony. There are also plants she’s trying to eradicate, namely the garlic mustard, an invasive species from Europe that keeps seedlings from growing. “It has been a lot of editing,” Sarah said.
While the garden looks complete and is certainly a pleasant place to meander, the Straws dream of putting a pond and a patio in the backyard.
The tour is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, rain or shine. Proceeds fund the organization’s scholarships, awards and projects.
Hosta plants will also be sold at each of the nine gardens.