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Get growing: Robert Frost sat here

  • “As the leaves begin to turn on the Holyoke Range that the bench faces, I like to imagine the ghosts of Mr. Frost and Mr. Craig sipping whiskey neat [and] smoking pipes,” says Mickey Rathbun. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michey Rathbun has planted three Heuchera plants in front of the stone bench at the edge of the woods in her Amherst back yard. Photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rathbun hopes this Kousa dogwood sapling — a gift from a gardening friend — will one day complement the bench. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A stone bench sits at the edge of the woods in Mickey Rathbun's Amherst back yard with a view to the south of the Holyoke Range. Photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mickey Rathbun sits on the stone bench in her Amherst back yard with a view to the south of the Holyoke Range on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rathbun planted three ‘Grape Expectations’ heuchera plants at the base of the bench, on the edge of the woods on her Amherst back yard. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



For the Gazette
Friday, October 12, 2018

When my husband and I first saw our house in South Amherst in 2009, the real estate agent proudly told us that Robert Frost used to sit on the stone bench in the backyard. She explained that Frost was a friend of the house’s original owner, Armour Craig, a member of the Amherst College English Department, of which Frost was also a member.

I stashed this information somewhere at the back of my mind. It seemed relatively unimportant compared to our concerns about the durability of the house’s flat, rubber roof and the mysterious radiant heating system embedded in our concrete floors. Besides, we figured that Frost had sat in countless places in his long, storied life. “Robert Frost Sat Here” signs would considerably outnumber those claiming that “Washington Slept Here.”

Our new yard had suffered considerably from “deferred maintenance” in the years before we bought it. The bench, a rugged rectangular slab of local stone — perhaps from Ashfield or Goshen, was barely visible at the edge of the so-called lawn. It backs up against a couple of mature white pines whose trunks are host to proliferating English ivy. These trees are the outer frontier of our cultivated civilization. Beyond them is a stretch of unkempt woods and underbrush that easily swallows up spent Christmas trees in mid-January.

From time to time I have struggled to liberate the bench from the tangle of weeds that engulf it. When we first moved in, I transplanted a few ‘Wake Robin’ trillium bulbs at the foot of the bench that I’d brought from our previous home. These lovely crimson ephemerals bloom every spring, stark against the cold blueish stone, and go dormant again as the summer onslaught of crabgrass, poison ivy and blackberries arrives. I confess that battling these thugs has been relatively low on my list of garden priorities.

But the bench has become the focus of my attention once again, since a gardening friend gave me a Kousa dogwood sapling. After searching for an appropriate site for the fledgling tree that would provide adequate sun and shade as well as a pleasing aesthetic context, I decided to plant it in the grassy area in front of the bench. But where, exactly? I examined the site from various parts of the yard as well as from inside the house, from where it would be seen the most often. I spent a long time moving the tree in its pot forward and back, side to side. I didn’t want the tree to be too close to the bench or too far away. I wanted it to have a relationship, maybe a dialog of sorts, with the bench. But I wanted it to maintain its own space, its own independent identity. I think I found the perfect spot, but time will tell whether it likes its new situation.

After planting the tree, I turned my energies towards the bench itself. I cleared the clutter of cracked hickory nut shells left by hoarding squirrels preparing for winter. I pulled weeds and dug out several well-established clumps of blackberry vines. I hacked down a few maple saplings that had grown up behind the bench. I mixed several bucketfuls of compost into the bare dirt and excavated the major rocks. I planted three heuchera ‘Grape Expectations’ whose greenish purplish leaves show off nicely against the stone face of the bench. I am contemplating some spring bulbs to accompany the trillium. Snowdrops, blue scilla, small species tulips, perhaps.

The bench, now cleared, could comfortably sit two tweed-clad, middle-aged professors. As the leaves begin to turn on the Holyoke Range that the bench faces to the south, I like to imagine the ghosts of Mr. Frost and Mr. Craig sipping whiskey neat, smoking pipes, and talking about the demise of the Lord Jeffs and the renaming of the venerable Lord Jeffrey Inn (where Frost often stayed, and sat) to the “Inn on Boltwood.” Times change but stone endures.

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

Upcoming garden events 

Apple picking time

Our orchards are full of ripening apples of many varieties, including Macoun, Gingergold and Honeycrisp. McIntosh are the best for applesauce. There are lots of pick-your-own orchards in the area. If you’re not inclined to pick, you can buy bags of apples, too. This is a fabulous activity for kids. The question is what to do with all them apples once you get home. Crisps, pies, cakes, Pandowdies … pull out a cookbook or google apple recipes. Your kids will be much more likely to help you in the kitchen if they picked the apples themselves.

Succulent talk

Succulents such as cactus, agave and aloe are plants I usually associate with warm or tropical climates. But the world of cultivated succulents is wide, and even here in New England we can enjoy them outdoors in containers and landscaping as well as indoors as unusual houseplants and bonsai specimens. On Oct. 14 from 1 to 2 p.m, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston will host long-time succulent enthusiast Jeff Moore for a discussion about how we engage with these plants, from the casual enthusiast to collectors and growers. Moore will discuss their various uses and also showcase the major genera, including aloes, euphorbias, agaves, cacti, crassulas and kalanchoes, with stunning images. Moore has owned Solana Succulents, just north of San Diego, since 1992. He is the author of three books, Under the Spell of Succulents, Aloes and Agaves, and Soft Succulents. All three books will be available for purchase and signing after his talk. Cost: members: $10/nonmembers: $20.

Pruning ornamental trees and shrubs

Autumn is a great time to assess your woody plants for shape and structure. On Oct. 20, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge is hosting a demonstration / workshop on pruning, including when, why and how to shape, renovate, train or rejuvenate your woody plants. Learn about pruning tools, timing and specific techniques available to the home gardener. Pruning techniques for both evergreen and deciduous hedges will be covered. Wear waterproof outerwear and boots and bring pruners. The workshop will be conducted by Ken Gooch, a Massachusetts Certified Arborist and the former Forest Health Program Director for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation. Cost: Members: $25/nonmembers: $25. For more information and to register, go to:

berkshirebotanical.org