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Annual Northampton Garden Tour June 8 features six sites

  • Julie Abramson, whose garden is included in the Friends of Forbes Library Tour, collects unusual perennials, annuals and woody plants.
  • <br/>Julie Abramson, whose garden is included in the Friends of Forbes Library Tour, collects unusual perennials, annuals and woody plants.
  • 'Bourbon' clematis grows in Julie Abramson's Northampton garden.
  • <br/>Julie Abramson's garden is one of six included in the Friends of Forbes Library garden tour on June 8.
  • “I sit here and I look out at the path and love it, says Julie Abramson. "Of course, the path wouldn’t be anything without the garden.”<br/>
  • <br/>Hostas in Julie Abramson's garden
  • Julie Abramson's garden at her home off Cooke Street in Northampton.
  • <br/>A tree peony in Julie Abramson's garden
  • <br/>Julie Abramson grows 15 varieties of clematic, including this one, 'Silver Moon'.

Serenity is the key word for Julie Abramson’s garden, which is featured on the June 8 Northampton Garden Tour sponsored by the Friends of Forbes Library. Abramson collects unusual perennials, annuals and woody plants, and she has an innate design sense that blends them all together.

Abramson’s house is surrounded by gardens, both sunny ones and shady ones. However, it is the large garden in the backyard that is so stunning — and restful.

The backyard slopes dramatically uphill from a small patio, so the previous owner put in a modest terraced garden with low stone walls. Abramson has radically expanded this area up the slope. A grassy pathway snakes up the hill drawing the eye to treasures unseen from the patio.

“That path leads you up the hill. I feel I am sweeping up the path,” she said.

Tickets for the annual garden tour cost $15 in advance; $20 the day of the tour. They are available at the library and at Cooper’s Corner in Florence, Cornucopia Foods in Thorne’s Marketplace and State Street Fruit Store, both in Northampton, Bay State Perennial Farm in Whately and Hadley Garden Center in Hadley.

Tickets include a map with descriptions and directions. There will also be a raffle for prizes that include gift certificates, chocolate, a quilt and a gardening lesson.

Abramson says she likes mounds and the way they relate to each other, and incorporates spiky plants to break the rhythm of the mounds of green.

“I like the flow of the plants,” she said. “I add something a little vertical here and there.”

While she continues to “edit” her garden, she says, she’s not someone who can work from a plan, so she sits on her patio or her screened porch or even inside at her kitchen table and contemplates how to edit the landscape.

“It’s so visceral,” she said.

Texture and foliage figure prominently in her design. The path is edged with perennial Geranium macrorrhizum with magenta flowers and ‘Blue Cadet’ hosta, a small-leafed variety. More hostas, large and small, blue leaf and yellow leaf, some with white edges, provide bulk to the display.

Contrasting are delicate ferns. Two weeks ago bright blue ajuga, a gorgeous blue columbine and white fern-leaf bleeding heart stood out against the greenery. Delicate pink flowers of coral bells, budding spikes of lady’s mantle, forget-me-nots and lungwort added to the display.

A pair of Pagoda dogwoods (Cornus alternifolia), with their striking branching structure and subdued flower clusters, provide accents on the hill along with an Enkianthus with pink flowers. Azaleas and rhododendrons add color.

In the midst of the garden is a stone cairn created by David Livesey, a mason who helped build the patio. When he was finished, he scared her by throwing a hammer at his creation. “If it can’t take that, it won’t last,” he explained.

Originally the yard was in deep shade but she took down 25 trees to lighten up the area.

“Grass is not what we do here,” she said.

Abramson grows low bush and high bush blueberries, but, thanks to the birds, she has yet to taste any. The birds love the serenity of the garden as indicated by the presence of a phoebe and a robin nesting on the house.

Master gardener

Over the years — this is Abramson’s third large garden in three states — she has learned a great deal about perennials so she knows which ones will fulfill her vision. She trained as a master gardener through university extension in Albany. In recent years she has learned more about shrubs and trees, so much so that when she moved from Albany in 2003 she filled a panel truck with three tiers of plants including Japanese maples, dwarf conifers and small ornamental trees as well as favorite perennials.

“I wanted to bring a katsura tree but it grew too fast,” she said.

However, when she unloaded them that fall in Northampton she discovered to her dismay that her soil was rocky ledge, almost impossible to dig. It took her a month to “heel in” her treasures until she could site them properly in the spring. Because digging holes in the original soil was impossible, she put down six inches of compost and planted everything in that.

Each year she adds more compost from Bear Path Farm in Whately and spreads dark bark mulch from Cotton Tree Service in Northampton around all her plants. Her spring routine is “edge, weed, compost and mulch.” When she started creating the gardens she knew she would need a lot of help.

Due to health problems, “I am really limited in what I can do,” she said. “I organize minions.”

Her helpers, mostly students from Smith College in Northampton or local teenagers, do the mulching and heavy work. Meanwhile, she concentrates on design, growing plants from seed and planting dozens of containers to place in the garden and along her driveway.

Starting from seed

Each year, Abramson grows hundreds of plants from seed under fluorescent lights in her basement. Her light setup is strictly utility lights with a cool-white bulb and a warm-white bulb.

“People don’t have to pay all that money for special lights,” she said.

Many of her seedlings are vegetables for her Northampton Community Garden plot; her home garden is too shady for tomatoes and other vegetables. One unusual vegetable she tried this year is cardoon. She has a small Flower House plastic zip-open cold frame she sets up in her driveway to harden off plants. She said she has always had a cold frame, initially one built of cement blocks and old storm windows, but the plastic model is easier to use.

Many of the annuals are destined for containers and hanging baskets in the sunnier areas of the gardens. Among the annuals she grew this year is Heteropappus meyendorfii ‘Blue Knoll,’ a low annual with daisy-like flowers in late summer and fall. She learned about it from Mimi Teghtsoonian, who is active at the community gardens and with the Forbes tour.

Abramson went on the Forbes Library garden tour her first year in Northampton. She said she had chosen the city as her retirement home because of the Five Colleges environment, the progressive atmosphere and its cosmopolitan feel. On her first tour she met Linda Bisaillon, a tour organizer who urged her to get involved with the Friends of the Forbes Library. In recent years Abramson has chaired the garden committee, selecting gardens for the tour.

Friends urged her to include her own garden but she wanted to wait until it matured and especially until her red ‘Dublin Bay’ climbing rose covered the arbor at the entrance of the garden. The rose is paired with two vigorous clematis vines, ‘General Sikorsky’ and ‘Polish Spirit’ but the rose itself hasn’t fulfilled its promise yet.

Abramson specializes in clematis — she has 15 varieties — including a new one, ‘Silver Moon’, with pale blue flowers, and ‘Bourbon’, with burgundy blooms. It is one plant she purchases by mail order — from Brushwood Nursery in Georgia.

At the other end of the entry path is Rosa ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ with Lonicera pericylmenum ‘Serotina’, a vining honeysuckle.

Take it all in

Visitors on the tour will enter the rear garden along this pathway, leading from the sunny gardens in front. Along the garage wall is her collection of miniature hostas, perfect for a north-facing site. Bright blue annual lobelias complement the hostas, many of them with blue foliage.

Don’t ignore the front plantings, however. Beside the driveway is a lovely area, revamped last year with an unusual Goshen stone boulder as a focal point. Abramson pointed out that Goshen stone is generally flat and used for patio floors and low walls. She found this specimen at Goshen Stone Company in Goshen.

In front of the boulder is a dwarf Japanese white pine ‘Adcock’s Dwarf’ with a hefty trunk for a dwarf plant.

“Look at the caliper on it,” she said. Earlier this year she was worried because it was turning brown, but Peter Flynn of Bay State Perennial Farm in Whately, where she buys many plants, reassured her that all pines lose a third of their needles every year. It looks perfectly healthy now.

The sunny gardens feature several varieties of catmint (Nepeta) as well as Amsonia, allium bulbs, sedums for late summer bloom and several dwarf shrubs as well as Stachys ‘Helen von Stein’ with large gray leaves. On the south side of the house is a small rock garden designed and planted several years ago by Beth DiBella. It features an unusual prickly pear cactus.

Foundation plantings include purple-leafed and purple-flowered shrubs and perennials to echo the eggplant color of the clapboards. Near her back patio is a favorite Viburnum sargentii ‘Onondaga’ with lace cap flowers in white with purple edges. However, she called it “gawky” and lamented that it is also a favorite of the dread viburnum beetle that skeletonizes its leaves.

In front she planted a row of Geranium macrorrhizum but it didn’t like the sunnier areas. So she completed the edging with purple-leafed heucheras.

Along the street is a long bed of daylilies, which bloom in different seasons starting in mid-June.

Throughout the gardens, judicious use of evergreen shrubs provides a green backdrop for the flowering plants.

Sitting in her kitchen last week, looking out over her rain-soaked back garden, Abramson said the challenge is how to create a composition without it just looking like mush.

“I sit here and I look out at the path and love it. Of course, the path wouldn’t be anything without the garden.”

Cheryl B. Wilson can be contacted at valleygardens@comcast.net.


20th annual Northampton Garden Tour sponsored by Friends of Forbes Library

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The 20th annual Northampton Garden Tour sponsored by the Friends of Forbes Library is June 8 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., rain or shine. There are six gardens on the tour, including Julie Abramson’s. Several are owned and created by artists while others also feature garden art. One is jointly owned by four condominium residents while another eschews the …

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