The Hamlins' garden is filled with more than just flowers and ferns -- though there are plenty of those, too.
Antique farm equipment, tiny animal figurines and costume jewelry are mixed in among the garden plots scattered throughout the yard of the Schenectady home.
“Each of my little gardens has its own character,” said Kate Hamlin. The home is one of nine stops on the Soroptimist Garden Tour to be held Saturday, June 15, and hosted by Soroptimist International of Schenectady.
The house has been in the Hamlin family since the 1800s, according to Alan Hamlin. It was a working family farm until the 1930s, when some of the land was sold. In the following decades, the former farm fields turned into overgrown forest, taking over the backyard. When Kate and Alan moved into the home in 1995, they began to push the tall grasses back, making space for their gardens.
“This is like our life journey,” said Kate, looking out over the gardens she and Alan have fostered over the years.
Several plots dot the property, filled with everything from jack-in-the-pulpit to trilliums to hellebores. Mixed in are elf statues and figurines, along with children’s toys and found objects from around the yard.
To the untrained eye, it may seem as if there’s no pattern, but Kate has it all planned in conjunction with nature.
“Every place where a giant tree fell, or something opened up a niche, it got turned into a garden. It happened the way nature [intended],” Kate said.
In some of the garden plots, there’s driftwood from near and far. In others, there are trunks or stumps from fallen trees on the property. Each has its own flare.
“This is the ruins,” said Kate. The small garden features shiny costume jewelry that sparkles in the sun beside broken bits of an antique table that are reminiscent of Roman architecture.
Nearby is a larger garden with an elf statue, ceramic mushrooms and a fairy-sized bench. There’s also a St. Francis garden, a pig garden and a childhood garden, among others.
All this attention to detail is a bit like creating a work of art -- using a living medium.
“It’s a way to be creative when you don’t have a lot of innate talent,” Kate said. “You can manage things so that you’re not doing the creating, you’re just being the manager [but] you can feel that joy.”
It took time for the Hamlins to determine how to best manage the gardens, especially as the property has several black walnut trees. The trees make for shady gardens and produce a chemical called juglone, which is toxic to many plants.
“You have to learn what the land will tolerate. It’s a challenge, but it’s a delightful challenge,” Kate said.
This year has been tougher than others for many gardeners.
“Rain and cold are the perfect storm,” Kate said. However, she’s been able to find ways of combating both, as have the Lavignes, owners and caretakers of another garden on the tour.
Michael and Sondra Lavigne have both worked at the garden since moving into the home in 1976, though Sondra is the one with the green thumb.
“It’s been a lot of trial and error over the years, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I enjoy it still. Gardening is my gym and my therapist,” Sondra said.
The gardens are spread in patches throughout the five-acre property, with bright yellow, purple and red flowers peeping out of dark mulch. Closer to the house, the Lavignes have started a vegetable garden, which is fenced in to ward off the deer that often eat the flowers and greenery around their home.
“It’s like a salad bar for the deer,” Michael said.
One of the most charming parts of the garden is an antique cart in front of the home. Michael repurposed and repainted an old factory cart into a pleasantly purple and green flower bed. This time of year, there are geraniums and daisies, among other flowers, bursting from the cart.
For the Hamlins and Lavignes, this marks the first year their gardens are part of the Soroptimist tour. The invitation is an acknowledgment of how much work both families have put into their gardens, but it’s also a good way for gardeners to swap suggestions and advice.
The Soroptimist International of Schenectady Garden Tour raises funds to support programs and organizations that socially and economically empower women and girls. The tour runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, rain or shine. There are nine gardens to visit on the tour, spread throughout Schenectady County and each with a different flair or theme.
Tops American Grill, Bakery & Bar (351 Duanesburg Road, Rotterdam) will donate 10 percent of any customer’s bill who stops for lunch or dinner from the garden tour to the Soroptimist International of Schenectady. The Schenectady ARC Horticulture Center will also be providing plants for sale, including herb plantings, hanging baskets, perennials and annuals at garden No. 6 on the tour.
Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 on the day of the tour. They can be purchased online at soroptimistofschenectady.org or at the following stores: The Petal Pusher, Burnt Hills; Scott's Hallmark, Glenville; Oliver's Cafe, Scotia; Felthousen's Florist, Niskayuna; Hartz Family Cleaners, Niskayuna; The Open Door, Schenectady; Experience and Design, Schenectady; Kulak's Nursery & Landscaping, Rexford; and Faddegon's Nursery, Inc., Latham. For information, visit soroptimistofschenectady.org.