Most years, this story would be about the fabulous gardens awaiting visitors on the Secret Gardens Tour planned for July.
But this isn’t like most years.
With the status of the Covid-19 virus uncertain, the Saratoga Soroptimist club decided for safety’s sake to cancel what would have been its 26th consecutive annual tour.
Yet, even without a tour, the gardens will be fabulous. Gardening, after all, is a labor of love. It reflects individual creativity and appreciation for nature’s nourishment of our five senses -- and our soul.
Just ask Heather Madigan. “I am a hospital physician actively caring for Covid patients,” she told Soroptimists in mid-April. “The gardening is my meditation.”
Heather owns the middle of three adjacent city homes that would have been on the Secret Gardens
Tour. (All the gardeners have been invited to participate in 2021.) “We have been blessed with wonderful neighbors on both sides, and our backyards in many ways flow from one to the other,” Heather explained. A portion of her backyard is intended for urban farming, and, in addition to herbs and vegetables, there are organic free-range chickens, which sometimes wander next door. Social distancing doesn’t apply to fowl.
Sure, the tour is canceled this year, but the gardens still will be tended with their owners’ irrepressible passion, same as always. This is their pleasure.
“The shade gardens on the north side of the house are a personal favorite, very textural and soothing with a babbling water feature and a winding pathway to draw you into the little sitting area,” wrote Barbara and Glenn LaGrone about the gardens they built from scratch at their Ballston Spa home.
Down the road a bit, Chris Burghart’s backyard includes “Pollinator’s Playground at Mosaics Crossing,” a registered Monarch Way Station in a sunny area boasting a homemade totem pole and stepping-stones. Shady paths lead to a babbling stream with koi, goldfish, little green frogs – and a glass mushroom patch Chris has “grown” in her indoor art studio.
Not far from there, Liz Kormos and Sander Bonvell were excited to show visitors how their garden has matured and flourished since it was on the Secret Gardens Tour five years ago. Native grasses have been divided twice. Their arbor now supports three varieties of grapes and hardy kiwi.
All these people garden for the joy it brings them, a sentiment Cathy and Neil Roberts understand perfectly.
Their Fiddle-i-fee Farm, named for a Pete Seeger song, is a mélange of fields, woodlands, and wetlands in eastern Saratoga County’s Bacon Hill. “It rolls to a bluff above the Hudson, with vistas east to Vermont and north to the Adirondacks,” Cathy explained. They have enriched the hedgerows and swales with arborvitae, larch, bald cypress, sycamore, willow, magnolia, pawpaw and persimmon trees. They planted a tulip tree when their eldest son was three years old; it is, like him, now more than four decades old.
“A prairie reconstruction shares a field with an orchard and vegetable garden. An expansive informal garden billows around an Arts and Crafts-style house, borrowing views from surrounding nature,” Cathy wrote. The prairie was part of a hayfield she has turned into a meadow with grasses planted from seed. “By August the grasses are taller than your head,” she told me.
Cathy experiments with plantings native to North America, though not common to upstate New York. “You know how designers plan a garden on paper? I cannot do that. I just have to walk around. I’m familiar enough with the plant materials, their height, their type of bloom, and I like when they seed themselves, or things pop up somewhere else. I’m naturalistic. I like things to blend with the woodlands,” Cathy said. “It’s not just gardens that surround a house. We sort of made our own park.”
In early July, when the Secret Gardens tour typically occurs, they certainly have flowers in bloom, but, Cathy explained, “My garden is more about foliage. I am adding things all the time.” Come fall, their usual strategy is to fill their trailer with the bags people place curbside in nearby developments and use the leaves to mulch their flower beds and vegetable garden.
Cathy and Neil have protected their entire 140 acres from ever being subdivided and developed through what’s called a conservation easement, accomplished with the guidance of Saratoga PLAN. “We love this land,” Cathy said.
Part of their property is rented to an adjacent farmer for field crops. The couple concentrate their most intense cultivation on about five acres surrounding their home. “We’re always outside. Even when I’m not working in the garden, in the evening, particularly, I like to walk around my paths and see what’s flowering. Gardens are never static. I’ll go away for the day and be gone maybe six hours, and the garden is different when I return. It really is a park to us, and lovely to live in.
“To other people it would be, ‘Oh, groan, oh, work’,” Cathy said. Quite the contrary for gardeners on the Secret Gardens Tour. “This is what we like to do. We like to make things beautiful.”
The Secret Gardens Tour is presented by Soroptimist International of Saratoga County, the local branch of an international professional women’s service organization whose name means the best for women. The all-volunteer event raises thousands of dollars for projects and programs in keeping with the Soroptimist mission to improve the lives of women and girls locally and globally. The local club’s keynote project is a hands-on program conducted through Wellspring, consisting of a series of classes to help victims of domestic violence obtain their legal and financial independence. Another exciting new program involves workshops and mentoring for girls in secondary school, aimed at helping them overcome obstacles to their future success. Soroptimists at SoroptimistSaratoga.org.