Aug 17, 2012

Vie à La Campagne; In Gardens with Jeff & Bruno


I owe much of my love for gardening to Jeffrey Farrell. I am also aware of how my lifestyle has been influenced by both him and his partner, Bruno. They live in the small town of Ashfield, Massachusetts, which lies about forty minutes from Northampton and the five-college area at the foothills of the Berkshires and are part of a community of liberals, intellectuals, writers, painters, professionals and simple country folk. Many of them are immigrants to this country or ex-city folks. I was first introduced to Jeff and Bruno while visiting with my then boyfriend, Marc, about twenty years ago. Since then they have become my very close friends.

                                                   Cornus kousa outside the kitchen window

Theirs is a modest house that is both rustic and modern. Wooden with two floors and large windows, it sits on three acres of land that slopes downhill towards flower and vegetable gardens and separated by massive leaves of Petasites from a small pond outlined in yellow-flowering irises. In the winter their bedroom is flooded with light and crowded with overwintering annuals, orchids and succulents while the cellar houses numerous potted salvias, dahlias and an assortment of plants that may survive the New York winter. While Jeff tends the animals and gardens Bruno has undertaken the responsibility of organizing the indoor living space, constantly redesigning and tweaking each room to create uncluttered and simple environments with very carefully selected pieces of furniture, art and other useful and beautiful things. Work of local artists can be found all around. The most recent upgrade is a sleek long rectangular stone sink that sat in some one's yard for about twenty years before catching Bruno's eye. Like the collection of teapots, shelves and everything else in the kitchen and dining area, the sink is modern and elegant.

Jeff and Bruno live in a house without cell phones or television and the spotty internet connection does not inspire the use of a computer. When indoors, we read, listen to MPR or jazz, (I came to love Miles, Nina and Bill T. Jones there) and have long talks over dinner. Those guys make the most amazingly simple and delicious meals, partly because a lot of the ingredients come from their own garden just minutes before they reach the pot or table. Also, Jeff was the original owner and chef of Phez in Northampton. They are vegetarians for the most part and prepare meals that make you wonder why anyone would ever consider eating bacon. At the end of each growing season excess tomatoes and rhubarb are frozen, bottled or given to lucky neighbors or visiting city folk. Dessert with raspberries or blueberries and wine follow as the evening ends with most or all of us


It is a nine to five household: 9:00pm to bed and 5:00am to wake, tend to the sheep, donkey and chickens, which are never eaten (at least not by humans), finish reading yesterday's newspaper, browse through plant and seed catalogs then start the day's gardening chores.

Jeff is one of the few people I know who effortlessly completes each NY Times Sunday crossword. I have learned that I will never beat him at Scrabble or Boggle or know all he does about art and history. I hope that maybe one day I will be as knowledgeable as he is about plants and gardening.
I often call him up on the phone to pick his brain about some plant, tree or the other or with concerns about clients or aspects of a particular gardening project. He has been gardening professionally for a long time and there is no garden question he cannot answer. I have had the privilege to work with him maintaining the original plantings in the beautiful garden of Elsa Bakalar, the renowned garden designer and writer. As his assistant in gardens throughout Ashfield and neighboring towns, I'm always eager to learn all I could while enjoying every minute of the sometimes back-breaking work.  On many occasions I've later worked out the kinks in my muscles with walks and yoga with Bruno.

                         Jeff working in Elsa's Garden with my Julian somewhere, hauling off weeds

Having spent much of my life in the tropics, the business of planting bulbs in the spring, knowing the difference between annuals and perennials and how to overwinter plants were all foreign notions to me until I met Jeff. "Salvia" was never part of my vocabulary and I learned to quiet my racing heart after years of being mesmerized by the hues of 'Black and Blue' and the host of other salvias, flitterlaria, flowering onions, poppies, various lilies and uncommon flowering bulbs that parade through the gardens. I discovered how lovely the deadly caster bean plant can be in the mixed border and the difference between Angelica archangelica and the poisonous giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), both very stately and lovely.

                                                   Overwinterers: Agapanthus, Salvia, Musa

                                                      Hummingbirds love Salvia and so do I

                                Jeff and Bruno at  the wedding of Andy and Claire on Mt. Greylock

                                                     Sea of Petasites flowing into the pond

Before meeting Jeff and Bruno I had seen photos of poppies but could not have imagined that they would be so delicate and wondrously elegant. Crocosmia lucifer, Oh my! What a striking red it is, rivaling the brightest of tropical Hibiscus and Chakonia. I had never ripped a piece of already-peeling white bark off birch or wondered why the aspen quakes. Until those trips to Ashfield I had only dreamed of fall coloring and I quickly grew to understand why the "Tree Peepers" flock to New England year after year.

                                                 New fence for vegetable and flower garden

In the summer we go to bed with the sounds to frogs chirping and awake to birds singing. The boys find garden snakes, newts, frogs and salamanders and have taken turns chasing the sheep and riding Diego, the donkey. We've hiked to waterfalls and to the Buddhist colony nearby. Swam in the lake, rowed the canoes and ridden the horses in the field with an old barn at the foot of the hill near the house. We would bar-b-q and play bocce until it was too dark to see the balls. I've attempted to speak a few words of French at Bruno's Parle Vous brunches. We've rolled around in the grass at the birthplace of Mary Lyons. So, many stories, laughs and good memories, many including our friend, Michael 'Pocahanthus' P. (Pocahanthus for the bareback, bare butt riding scene as he and horse gradually disappeared into the pond). In the winter it is wonderful to wake up with the sky turning from pthalo to cerulean behind the infinitely crisscrossing frames of bare branches and sit by the fire watching cardinals and woodpeckers on massive maples and oaks or clustering around feeders. With the boys we've gone skating on the Ashfield lake where Bruno is fond of swimming, where my boys learned to swim and where Jeff, at the age of sixty-plus, still does back flips off the diving board. We've gone flying over the hill on sleds and bruised our tailbones down the golf course. The boys always seem to wake up early and get wet or covered in snow or mud before I roll out of bed for my coffee made by Jeff and later, tea, with Bruno of course. We've gone for walks through snow-covered woods with only the light of the moon. It is there, surrounded by woods and mountains that I often find inspiration for my paintings. It was there, while walking along the road between Jeff's and Bruno's house and Shelburne Falls that Marc proposed. It was there, on one of those trips in 1996 that we discovered a little cabin on fourteen acres of land, just a mile away, jumped at the opportunity and bought it a few weeks later. Orion was five months old and wriggled in my arms like a fat earthworm all through the closing.

When I am there in the house or gardens or walking along the gravel roads, or in the car moving through rolling countryside spotted with old barns, vast fields and occasional deer and turkey under perfect clouds I become very aware of how nature, open spaces and beautiful scenery affect how we feel and the ways I desire to grow, and improve my life. Yeah, New York City is a fabulous place to call home but there are other, different and equally excellent places where the living is good. Trips out of  the city to the countryside are rejuvenating and restore a sense of priority and balance. Somehow nature has a way of strengthening my faith that we are all striving towards living more simply and honestly and to evolve into better human beings or into a less destructive and more mindful species. Being in the countryside reminds me that what is important is living my life with integrity and without fear while striving towards making a positive impact with my very existence; doing away with the unnecessary or negative, living with passion and compassion and nurturing the people I love are the things that matter. Or maybe it is just the sight of two large sheep and a donkey peacefully walking side by side as they make their way up the gravel road to their home after deciding that were done grazing in the field with the old barn (that houses Blackie, a stray cat who looks like my GiGi), while Jeff naps on the sofa, blanketed in the NY Times and one of many cats, that inspires smiles or calm and something kind of wholesome and wonderful.

I look forward to trips to gardens and that house in the country. The Siberian irises, bee balm, lady's mantle, geraniums, lily-of-the-valley and lamb's ears currently growing in the garden on West 148th Street in New York originally grew in Jeff's garden or in my garden on East Buckland Road. When I tend them I am sometimes transported to those places hundreds of miles away. It is my hope that I can return the favor and inspire Bruno to call asking how to cook some Trinidadian dish that I once prepared there. Or for Jeff to ask for a plant, seed or sapling that he does not already grow himself. Or have him call me up to ask about the growing requirements of a plant or two. His asking will of course be the greatest compliment any gardener can ever receive.



Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...