Happy to be ‘haphazard’: Meredith Michaels’ Amherst gardens are an impressive profusion of colorful flowers and robust vegetables

Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The garden created in South Amherst by Meredith Michaels and her husband, Lee Bowie, over the past eight years is the epitome of the successful country garden, reflecting its pastoral surroundings of pastures, swamps and orchards.

Michaels is the new president of the Garden Club of Amherst, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and will be honored by the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce in October with a Legacy Award. Her garden was one of eight club members’ gardens on the late-June garden tour sponsored by the Amherst Historical Society.

Michaels and Bowie, spent a busy month preparing for the tour.

“(It) was a lot of work, but I was happy to do it for a good cause,” Michaels said. “It was interesting to have people come, to see the garden through other people’s eyes.”

The garden is hidden from the street, down a long driveway. There are stunning views of the Pelham Hills with Lawrence Swamp in the middle. Horse pastures are closer to the house and gardens as well as ancient orchards and more recently planted apple trees laden with fruit.

On a recent sweltering day, barn swallows swooped over the meadows and butterflies flitted among the bright flowers.

The entry garden features a pergola covered with a trumpet vine, which seeds in odd nooks and crannies.

“One of the strange things about this place was every kind of plant was an invasive,” Michaels said. They weren’t illegal invasives, just very aggressive plants like Macleaya cordata (plume poppy), Anemone sylvestris and Lysimachia clethroides (gooseneck loosestrife). “It was bizarre.”

Michaels weeded intensively trying to eradicate the stubborn plants — but they came back. Another curious aggressive plant is Himalayan impatiens (Impatiens glandulifera), a very tall specimen that reseeds freely.

One bonus of these plants is that they attract pollinators. They were covered with bees and butterflies on that sultry day.

A family tradition

Michaels said she has no formal training in gardening but the love of growing flowers and vegetables is in her blood. Her grandmother was president of a New Jersey garden club and her father was the only male member of a club on Martha’s Vineyard where the family had a summer home.

Her earliest memories are of gardening — picking beans and zinnias. One of her less happy memories dates to age 5 when she tried to help her father by watering his prized peonies. Unfortunately the watering can was filled with weed killer. To escape her father’s wrath, she says, she ran away from home, but did return. “I think the plants survived.”

Across the driveway from the entry garden is a colorful garden bed that started as a drainage problem. Michaels bought a load of large stones to cover French drains and then decided to plant in soil pockets between the stones. A short boardwalk spans the dry-stone streambed and you can hear the water gurgling in the drain.

This garden was alive with color at the end of July. Shrubs like butterfly bush and hydrangea are a backdrop for Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra) which is almost shrub-like. Bright yellow heliopsis, a bog sage in sky blue, balloon flowers, red cardinal flower and its blue cousin, Lobelia siphilitica, and a variety of sunflowers are dominant. Michaels grew the sunflowers from a packet of mixed seed and there are yellow as well as burgundy and bicolored ones.

A dramatic annual is amaranthus, actually a grain, with drooping burgundy plumes. It reseeds freely in all the gardens and Michaels simply pulls out what isn’t pleasing.

There is an edging of nasturtiums, one of her favorite flowers, along with portulaca, and a variety of taller cosmos.

‘Snack garden’

Off to one side of the large garden is a sandbox for the grandchildren, which is edged with “the snack garden.” There are ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes, nasturtiums (which are edible) and kale.

“If you are bulldozing and you need a little nourishment, you can have something to eat,” she explained.

Up the slope is the fenced vegetable garden surrounded by hollyhocks and dahlias.

“There’s a row of plum tomatoes in the back that we use for sauce,” she said. “There is nothing better in January than sauce from the freezer that really tastes like tomatoes.”

Among Michaels’ vegetables are lettuce, broccoli and edamame, a new venture this year. She said she and Bowie are always guessing which culprit is after the lettuce — flea beetles, Japanese beetles, slugs?

Recently they discovered the tips of pea vines near the fence had been nibbled by something and assumed it was deer. So they hung sachets of shaved soap, which seem to be working. A fake owl guards the gate and the gateposts are adorned with old political buttons. She calls this display “the garden of lost causes.”

Just beyond the vegetable garden is the apple orchard — eight trees heavily laden with fruit this year.

Last year, Michaels said, she only got two apples from one of the trees. They are mostly ‘Pink Lady’ or ‘Baldwin’ along with ‘McIntosh.’

Two years ago the ‘McIntosh’ crop was so prolific, she and her husband invited friends who have a cider mill in Hadley to pick the apples after the family harvested all they could eat. Michaels picked a perfectly formed apple from one tree, noting “there is no spray of any kind” but added they prune carefully.

Relaxation station

Off to the side of the house is a swimming pool with a view of the Pelham Hills. A picnic table under an arbor is a perfect place to relax. On the opposite side is a stone-wall raised bed filled with colorful plants. Butterflies cluster over the lavender and butterfly bush. Big clumps of bright yellow heliopsis adjoin stands of bee balm and there is more of the dramatic amaranthus. Grasses, nepeta and hollyhocks lend variety. The garden blends beautifully into the surrounding landscape of meadows and horse paddocks.

A dramatic and effective shrub in this garden bed is a Japanese willow (“That huge green monster”) she mistakenly thought her sister, Lee Badger of New York City, had recommended. When she inquired at the Hadley Garden Center about the plant, she was sold a Salix udensis sekka or fantail willow. She discovered later that her sister, who gardens in the Catskills, had in mind a different species — Salix integra or dappled willow. Now Michaels has both.

Michaels gardens organically so when she needed to eradicate purple loosestrife she laboriously dug it out.

“I’m trying not to use Roundup (a weed killer). I got rid of most of it,” she said.

She has ready access to tons of horse manure from the three horses that board in her barn. Every fall she and her husband shovel the manure around the garden beds. They also purchase a truckload of compost/mulch from Bear Path Farm in Whately.

“The garden really has just evolved,” Michaels said. “I know very little about gardening, but every year I learn new things. I’ve learned a lot from the members of the Garden Club. ... Of course, it’s a lot of trial and error.”

Michaels describes her garden as “undisciplined.” She explained that while she admires people with a talent for garden designs, carefully planned color schemes and artfully arranged unusual plants aren’t her style.

“What I really like about gardening is how different it is from work. It is solitary and yet there is a community of people you come to know and trust and count on. You can be as obsessive about the plants as you want. There is no pressure. It suits my haphazard nature.”

If haphazard and undisciplined describe the Michaels garden, it certainly is effective. The sunny expanse echoes the surrounding environment and yet is obviously a well-tended and loved landscape.

“Anybody can have a garden and grow something,” Michaels said. You just have to recognize that it is impermanent and things change all the time. “But it is such fun at dinnertime to realize, ‘Wow! What we are eating tonight we grew ourselves.’ ”

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


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