Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Not just another pretty garden

  • Gardner and stay-at-home mom Jessica Tanner stands in front of her front lawn pollinator garden. The garden will be featured in the 27th Annual Forbes Garden Tour on July 17 in Northampton on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • Gardner Jessica Tanner of Northampton plants an alpine strawberry plant, known for their sweet fruits, in her home pollinator garden in preparation for the 27th Annual Forbes Garden Tour, Saturday in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • Gardner Jessica Tanner and her son, Aaron Tanner-Banks, of Northampton, plant an alpine strawberry plant in her backyard pollinator garden. The garden will be featured in 27th Annual Forbes Garden Tour Saturday in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • A silver-spotted skipper butterfly lands on a bee balm flower in Jessica Tanner’€™s pollinator garden. The garden at her Northampton home will be part of the 27th Annual Forbes Garden Tour this Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

Published: 7/13/2021 3:49:06 PM

Garden tours offer many pleasures. They let us peek into other people’s private outdoor spaces, gathering inspiration and ideas for our own gardens. For once we can simply step back and admire, something many gardeners rarely find time to do. They can also expand our knowledge of gardening practices and philosophies.

And on Saturday, the Northampton Garden Tour returns for its 27th year, giving the public a chance to take self-guided tours at seven exceptional home gardens. The tours are scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., rain or shine, with proceeds benefiting Forbes Library in Northampton. (See below for details.)

One of the most unusual gardens on display this year features examples of permaculture, a gardening philosophy that seeks to be sustainable and self-sufficient by emulating natural ecosystems.

When you step into Jessica Tanner’s garden you get an immediate sense of connection to the natural world that goes beyond the cultivation of plants for human enjoyment. In the five years since she and her partner bought their house on Laurel Street in Northampton, she has worked within a framework of shrubs planted by the former owner to create a series of interesting and diverse spaces that reflect principles of permaculture.

Gardens based on nature

Tanner became interested in permaculture gardening in 2011 shortly after she moved to Northampton and took a class on the subject. She says she liked the idea of creating gardens based on models found in nature.

Tanner belongs to the Western Mass. Permaculture Guild, whose members participate in “perma-blitzes,” group work sessions in each other’s gardens. She recently hosted a perma-blitz and was pleased with the result.

“Five people came,” she said. “They took a look around and I came up with a list of different tasks that people could choose from. There was a big bush that I wanted taken out and a couple of guys volunteered to do that.”

Beyond free labor, Tanner said, “what’s even more valuable is the knowledge that’s shared when people come together.” Her helpers also went away with baby plants for their gardens.

A primary permaculture project of Tanner’s has been to create a pollinator-friendly environment. Between the street and her house, she has planted a thriving pollinator flower garden that wraps around her front porch. Here, several types of milkweed, including butterfly weed, common milkweed and swamp milkweed, share space with many varieties of pink and yellow echinacea, anise hyssop and other pollinator-friendly plants. Nearby is a patch of violets that have taken the place of grass.

“They’re a great groundcover,” she said. “They’re low-growing, so you can plant other things behind them, and their flowers are edible.”

Theme gardens

Tanner likes to experiment with theme gardens. Outside her bay window she has planted a fragrance garden, filled with several kinds of mint and thyme.

“Some people think that all plants want rich soil,” she said, “but that’s not the case.”

Thyme plants thrive in the dry sandy soil that comprises her yard. She is in the process of transplanting thyme plants to create a path around the front of the house that will be fragrant when people walk on it. Such pathway planting, she noted, is a common practice in England.

One of the most intriguing pollinator-friendly plants that Tanner has added is a spicebush, which is a host to spicebush swallowtail butterfly larvae, which emerge from their chrysalises as gorgeous black and blue butterflies. Last spring, when she noticed some of the bush’s leaves curling up, she worried for a moment that the plant was failing. To her surprise and delight, she discovered the larvae inside the curled leaves, which they use for shelter as they grow. (The larvae spin silky threads that pull the edges of the leaves together for this purpose!)

Permaculture aims to support all kinds of wildlife. Tanner has planted little blue stem, a drought-resistant prairie grass. I have always liked little blue stem because of its lovely blue-green color that turns copper in the fall, but I was unaware of its many wildlife-friendly attributes. The grass is a larval host for several species of skippers, a type of butterfly, and its dense clumps provide a winter home for numerous insects including bumblebee queens. The plant’s seedheads are favored by songbirds.

Another bird-friendly addition to the garden are three elderberry bushes that Tanner planted as a privacy hedge between her house and the street. In the spring, elderberry flowers attract insects for birds to eat, and in late summer their ripe berries provide a feast for goldfinches, Eastern bluebirds, Baltimore orioles and other feathered friends.

Closer to the street, the city of Northampton Tree Committee planted two white oaks on either side of her driveway. Tanner explained that such a planting was an old tradition practiced when a couple got married. “The idea was that the trees would grow up and together over time,” she said.


Tanner is always eager to try new things in the garden. The most unusual feature is what she calls the stump hump, a large mound of dirt heaped over several tree trunks that she brought over from her neighbor’s yard. This is an example of permaculture called hügelkultur, (“hill or mound culture”) that has been practiced in Eastern Europe and Germany for hundreds of years. The idea is to create a no-dig raised bed that holds moisture, builds fertility and maximizes growing space. She has planted clumps of blue stem on the mound and strawberry plants around the base, but noted that these plants may not get enough sun in that location. Such failures do not appear to dampen her enthusiasm.

Visitors to Tanner’s garden will also notice a small urn-like structure near the back fence. This is a solar composter for dog poop produced by the family canine, an Australian shepherd named Talie.

“It is a bit decorative,” she said, “but my goal is to eventually have enough plants growing around it so that it blends in more with the landscape.”

Tanner’s garden supports human activity as well. Her yard is kid-friendly for her son, age 8, and daughter, age 5. She took apart a disorderly bed of perennials — hostas, goldenrod, phlox and ferns — from outside a south-facing bay window and used them to create a spiraling bed next to a mature red maple behind the house.

“I then got the idea to plant edible plants spiraling inward so that our kids can harvest from them as they stroll through the labyrinth,” she said.

Tanner aims to grow as many food-producing plants as possible — for humans as well as animals. The south side of her yard is devoted to an annual vegetable garden, a raspberry patch and a row of plum trees and Asian pear trees that she is starting to train into an espaliered form that will act as a screen between her yard and her neighbor’s.

“I wanted my kids to have a visual for the property line so they wouldn’t step on my neighbor’s plants,” she said.

In addition to the espaliered fruit trees, Tanner has planted a pawpaw grove in the backyard. She explained that the pawpaw tree is native to this area and is the most northerly growing tropical fruit tree. Once established, the tree is low maintenance because it has few enemy bugs and does well even in the sandy dry soil found in her yard. She learned from other growers that the pawpaw can be a challenge to pollinate because only a specific pollinating fly is attracted to the smelly flowers. She has tried to pollinate the flowers by hand but has not yet produced fruit.

One of Tanner’s greatest challenges in creating a permaculture garden is the wide array of critters that it attracts. She noted that squirrels, deer and chipmunks help themselves to her fruits and vegetables, and she’s been visited by a bear and the occasional skunk that visits the compost pile. But she seems at peace with that.

“There’s a balance between predators and prey,” she said. “The chipmunks eat a few strawberries, but not too many. And then they help me by spreading seeds around the garden so that more plants will grow.”

Garden show details

Seven home gardens are featured on this year’s 27th annual Northampton Garden Tour, which takes place Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., rain or shine.

The tour raises funds for the Friends of Forbes Library Inc. to sponsor programming, events and projects. In addition to raising these funds, the goal of the tour is to inspire and educate interested gardeners with a variety of appealing landscape styles, collections of garden plantings, and approaches to garden design.

The scenic 10-mile route can be followed by car or a pleasant bicycle ride. Tickets provide driving directions to this self-guided tour. At each garden, there are descriptions of the plantings and volunteer garden guides on hand to answer questions.

Tour tickets are being sold in advance for $15 through Friday at Bay State Perennial Farm (Whately), Cooper’s Corner, State Street Fruit Store, Gardener’s Supply Company at Hadley Garden Center, and Forbes Library. Tickets can also be purchased online at through Thursday for pick at Forbes Library on the day of the tour. Tickets on the day of the tour, Saturday, are $20 and available only at Forbes Library.

The Northampton Garden Tour also offers a raffle, which features a garden bench, a Jana Ugone lamp, organic compost, gift certificates, garden supplies, a landscape consultation, and more. Raffle tickets (two tickets/$5, 5/$10 or 12/$20) can be purchased at one of the gardens on the day of the tour. A raffle drawing will take place at the end of the tour.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.


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