Shutesbury designer brings vision and long view to laying out greenspace


For the Gazette

Published: 09-09-2021 5:05 PM

SHUTESBURY — Many of us find ourselves puzzling over what to do with a bare yard, or an outdoor space that doesn’t quite work, or even an established garden that has gone “meh.” We want to make a change, but we’re stuck. We might have too many ideas, or we might not have any.

What if we could ask a knowledgeable and experienced local gardener, someone with a fresh pair of eyes and a talent for design, to come look at our space and give us some advice?

I recently met such a person. Mary Jo Maffei has recently launched Garden Path Design, a landscape consulting service aimed at helping people come up with workable garden plans, no matter where they’re starting from.

Maffei has lots of experience in the garden; she’s been gardening for more than 30 years, including 25 at her woodland home in Shutesbury. She has also taken classes and seminars on a variety of topics and is an avid reader of gardening books. In 2019, she gave a presentation at Hadley Garden Center on garden design.

It’s clear from a tour of Maffei’s gardens that she has a vision for what’s possible in a variety of outdoor spaces. As she explains, the area in front of the house was all asphalt when she and her family moved in. They soon discovered drainage problems in their basement that required extensive excavation of the front yard. This gave her the opportunity to create a new garden. Her husband, Jeff Quackenbush, an architect, laid the foundation and she designed the plantings.

Maffei has designed her garden areas to peak at different times of the year.

“Some gardeners want their gardens to have something blooming in every season,” she said. “I want each of my gardens to have a special time of year.”

Her front garden is designed to be in full bloom in August and September. It’s full of echinacea, rudbeckia and great blue lobelia. A trellis supports a climbing hydrangea and a lush autumn clematis that’s soon to be a cloud of small white flowers. The rest of the year, two trellises, a dwarf Japanese maple and barberry bushes give the space structural cohesion.

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“I want the structure to look good even without any flowers,” she said.

Maffei’s deep backyard is surrounded by mature trees that provide partial shade. “It’s a tricky site because the amount of sun it gets changes all year,” she said.

Strategic hardscaping lends a sense of flow and demarcation to the yard. She and her husband added a low Goshen stone wall and stairs behind the house that bisect the space, creating upper and lower sections of the yard. “If you live in the woods, you need some right angles and straight lines or your eye just melts into the background without any focus,” she said.

Within the lower space, which she said was once “a muddy mess,” she has created a series of small, rectangular gardens and a meadow, filled with wildflowers she planted from plant plugs and a seed mix she bought from New England Wetland Plants in South Hadley.

Across from the meadow is a fledgling orchard, consisting of several peach and cherry trees and a patch of raspberry bushes. She left three tall birch trees to serve as the focal point in another garden area. The shadiest side of the yard is for her spring garden, which contains a Pagoda dogwood, rhododendrons and mountain laurel underplanted by hostas, ferns and foxgloves.

Closer to the house is a summer garden that peaks in early July with goat’s beard, evening primrose and ligularia. The sunniest spot, just behind the house, is dedicated to a burgeoning vegetable and herb garden that Quackenbush maintains.

Maffei charges $100 for a 90-minute consultation at the client’s site. She advises clients to bring a notebook to the session. She begins by asking lots of questions, including how the space is used, the client’s budget, and other general information. That discussion leads to suggestions on how to move forward. She does not do garden installations herself, but she gives recommendations for landscaping and hardscaping businesses in the area.

Maffei hopes to instill in her clients an appreciation for the process of gardening. “It’s not like interior design, where you do the work and then it’s done,” she said. “Gardening is an iterative process. It builds as you go.”

Her approach is positive. “You can’t have a bad garden. There’s always something good. But you can make a garden better.” She also wants to let people know that it’s normal for plants to die sometimes.

“It doesn’t mean you have a black thumb!” she said.

To launch her new business, Maffei will showcase her own gardens in an “Open Garden” event on Sept. 12 at her home, 533 West Pelham Road, Shutesbury, from 2 to 4 p.m. This will give people a chance to see how she has implemented her gardening concepts in her own garden. But her intention is not to tell anyone how they should plan their gardens. Rather, she aims to help clients have a vision of what their garden could be like.

“I want them to have a sense of flow, point of view, to see the house, garden and hardscape as one continuous thing,” she said.

To RSVP for the open garden (not necessary but helpful) or for information, visit