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Hadley gardener displays results of organic growing methods at Amherst Historical Society’s garden tour

  • The view of the Mount Holyoke Range from Tony Kostek backyard.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The view of the Mount Holyoke Range from Tony Kostek backyard.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • A giant fleece flower (persicaria polymorpha) at Tony Kostek's Hadley home.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    A giant fleece flower (persicaria polymorpha) at Tony Kostek's Hadley home.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • A knockout rose in Tony Kostek's garden.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    A knockout rose in Tony Kostek's garden.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tony Kostek's garden used to be plagued by the dread lily leaf beetle but he says his worm-compost regimen deters the pests. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tony Kostek's garden used to be plagued by the dread lily leaf beetle but he says his worm-compost regimen deters the pests.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  •  Veronica, a perennial that blooms for several weeks, in the side yard of Tony Kostek's Hadley home.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Veronica, a perennial that blooms for several weeks, in the side yard of Tony Kostek's Hadley home.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tony Kostek leafs through an album of pictures taken at his family's former farm on Bay Road in Hadley. Kostek's current home is on Saturday's Amherst Historical Society garden tour.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tony Kostek leafs through an album of pictures taken at his family's former farm on Bay Road in Hadley. Kostek's current home is on Saturday's Amherst Historical Society garden tour.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • A giant fleece flower (persicaria polymorpha) at Tony Kostek's<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    A giant fleece flower (persicaria polymorpha) at Tony Kostek's
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tony Kostek sifts through castings yielded by a worm factory in the basement of his Hadley home.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tony Kostek sifts through castings yielded by a worm factory in the basement of his Hadley home.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tony Kosti estimates that he has 8,000 worms in his basement worm factory.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tony Kosti estimates that he has 8,000 worms in his basement worm factory.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The view of the Mount Holyoke Range from Tony Kostek backyard.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • A giant fleece flower (persicaria polymorpha) at Tony Kostek's Hadley home.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • A knockout rose in Tony Kostek's garden.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tony Kostek's garden used to be plagued by the dread lily leaf beetle but he says his worm-compost regimen deters the pests. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  •  Veronica, a perennial that blooms for several weeks, in the side yard of Tony Kostek's Hadley home.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tony Kostek leafs through an album of pictures taken at his family's former farm on Bay Road in Hadley. Kostek's current home is on Saturday's Amherst Historical Society garden tour.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • A giant fleece flower (persicaria polymorpha) at Tony Kostek's<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tony Kostek sifts through castings yielded by a worm factory in the basement of his Hadley home.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tony Kosti estimates that he has 8,000 worms in his basement worm factory.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

There’s a lesson to be learned from Tony Kostek’s garden: Healthy plants come from healthy soil.

Kostek’s Hadley garden will be on the Amherst Historical Society’s garden tour Saturday in Amherst and Hadley.

Hadley soil is famous for its fertility, but many old-time farmers relied on chemicals to deter pests. Kostek is the son and grandson of Hadley vegetable farmers, whom he credits with his love of gardening.

“My father was a believer in chemical farming. I grew up with that,” Kostek explained. “I think he destroyed the soil with his chemicals.”

Kostek is a late convert to organic methods. When a neighbor recommended adding rock dust to his soil, “I laughed at him,” he said. “Then I did some research. ... Rock dust is incredible stuff.”

He stopped scoffing.

Inspired by the book “Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web” by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, which explained the wonders of worms and microbes working in the soil, Kostek started worm composting. He ordered several vermiculture bins and 2,000 red wriggler worms.

“I got very involved with worm compost. It’s obsessive with me now,” he said.

He has an impressive array of worm bins in his basement, four sets of five tiers of plastic over a hand-crafted wooden base. He estimates he now has 8,000 worms. He layers soil, shredded paper, grass clippings and kitchen scraps in the tiers along with the voracious worms.

“When I feed them garbage I add coffee grounds and corn meal. I really feed them well,” he said.

In case you are wondering about basement composting, “there’s no smell to it,” he stated. In just a few months the worms have digested their food and created fertile compost. Some of it Kostek applies directly to his vegetable plants. But most of it he makes into “compost tea.” He soaks three cups of the worm compost in a five-gallon pail of water to which he adds seaweed extract and molasses. He explained that the microbes in the compost need the molasses to survive. Then he pours the “tea” around his ornamental plants as fertilizer.

Kostek explained that healthy plants repel insects that are attracted to weak specimens. All of his plants are robust with almost no evidence of insect damage. He used to be plagued by the dread lily leaf beetle but he says the worm-compost regimen deters the pests. He found only six adult beetles this year.

Although Kostek won’t be demonstrating his vermiculture Saturday, the results are evident with his plants. Outside in the garden, for example, are stands of healthy lilies about to bloom for the tour.

“Lilies — that’s the proof the worm castings work,” he said.

Farming tradition

The family farm was on Bay Road where his parents grew vegetables for market. His mother had a wagon by the roadside, believed to be the first farm stand in Hadley.

“Every year my mother would get her picture in the paper with her wagon,” he said.

When Kostek built his Cape-style house in 1976 on land that had belonged to his mother’s family, he kept up the family tradition of growing vegetables, including tomatoes, kale, string beans and beets. Back then, he sold garlic from a roadside stand, but now sells only to supermarkets. He also rents part of the acreage to a farmer who grows potatoes.

In the 1980s, he followed another of his mother’s traditions — selling bouquets of flowers from his stand, and, for a time, at the Northampton Farmers Market.

“My mother had a great love for flowers,” he said. “My garden is dedicated to my mother.”

Birds, butterflies, blooms

Birds, butterflies and insects are drawn to Kostek’s gardens especially since he doesn’t use pesticides. A red-flowered honeysuckle vine, probably ‘Dropmore Scarlet’, twines up a post. There are several roses, two kinds of meadow row (Thalictrum aquilegifolium and T. rochebruneanum), salvias and Shasta daisies. He plants garlic in his flower beds to deter rodents.

Baskets of petunias he grew from seed hang from posts by the tiered fountain in the back yard near the deck. Ageratum edges many of the beds and zinnias will be summer accents. Kostek grows annuals and tomatoes from seed, ordering from Johnny’s in Maine, and Gurney’s and Jung in the Midwest.

His vegetable garden is screened from the back deck and ornamental garden by hedges of hemlock with a break in the hedge to view the potato fields and the Holyoke Range in the distance. He clips the hedge every year, which he thinks keeps the woolly adelgid at bay.

“My wife likes hedges,” he said.

Kostek grows and sells ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood from cuttings, which he also uses for hedges. He started growing it over 20 years ago because his late sister, Carolyn Kostek, a local garden designer, had difficulty getting that variety of boxwood. He takes cuttings in the spring and roots them in sand and peat moss. For hedges he recommends buying young plants and spacing them 12 to 18 inches apart then letting them grow together into a hedge.

The garden beds in his backyard are all edged with undulating low hedges of boxwood, rather like a parterre garden without the knot patterns. He also planted a row of the boxwoods in the front yard.

Unusual plants

The front of his house is simply landscaped with a variety of deciduous and evergreen shrubs including needled evergreens, broad-leafed evergreens and those with purple foliage such as a specimen Bloodgood Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’). A bold accent plant in the front is giant fleece flower (Persicaria polymorpha) with huge white plumes similar to goat’s beard. He has a pair of large ornamental grasses in the front beds and lily-turf (Liriope muscari) with summer flower spikes foliage similar to daylilies underplanting a paperbark maple (Acer griseum). For the tour Kostek has made labels for some of his unusual plants.

Throughout Kostek’s gardens are unusual trees and shrubs such as Tricolor beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea Tricolor’), Seven-sons flower tree (Heptacodium miconioides) and ‘Shasta’ Viburnum. The beech has purple foliage with pink edges.

“People stop and ask what the blooming tree is. I tell them it’s not a blossom, it’s a leaf,” he said.

The seven-sons tree blooms in the fall when it is “unbelievable” he said. The viburnum, a spreading shrub with white spring flowers has red berries that the birds adore. Another favorite tree is the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), a summer-flowering tree with glossy foliage that turns burgundy in the fall. “That is gorgeous in the fall,” he said. He was inspired to plant it when he saw one next to a bank in downtown Amherst.

Kostek gets ideas from the landscapes on local campuses, especially Smith College in Northampton. He says he buys plants everywhere. He has some trees obtained from the National Arbor Day Society that arrived as “sticks.” Now they are full grown, such as the Eastern redbuds (Cercis canadensis). Over the years he’s purchased trees from Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, Stewart’s in Turners Falls and has driven to Pittsfield and Vermont to find specimens.

Kostek is retired now and spends long hours in his garden.

“It gives me great pleasure,” he said. “It’s a great place for meditating. You reflect on things and it gives you back beauty.”

He shares his sister’s ability to design beautiful gardens and he lives up to his heritage in growing great plants.

“I get people knocking on my door to ask what is that plant and who does your landscaping?” he said. You won’t have to knock on his door tomorrow if you get a ticket for the garden tour. And you will enjoy a special treat of unusual plants well-grown by organic methods.

Perhaps you, too, will try worm composting.

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