Ambler Farm’s secret garden
The majority of visitors to Ambler Farm most likely miss one of the farm’s most delightful treasures: a large and beautiful perennial garden tucked in behind the white house, one of the historic structures currently undergoing renovation. From late April through late September, this garden is a tapestry of colors, textures and shapes — a profusion of hydrangeas, peonies, ferns, catmint, day lilies, evening primrose, astilbe, wild phlox, iris, ladies mantle, several varieties of hostas and ferns, and an ornamental spice tree — set against the backdrop of Ambler Farm’s historic buildings and rolling hills. The location and some of the plantings in the perennial garden actually date to the early days of the farm. When the town of Wilton purchased 22 acres from Betty Ambler’s estate in 1999, and assigned a steering committee to determine the farm’s future, Nancy Husta, a member of the original committee, was determined to restore the garden to its original splendor. Along with her husband, Dick, and several other volunteers, she designed and built the stone patio and walkways that now crisscross the garden, and began the process of clearing out the overgrowth and replanting the beds.
“So much of the garden was overgrown and overrun with weeds,” said Marie Donahue, a longtime Wilton resident who grew up several houses down from Ambler Farm, and was one of the early volunteers involved in the project. Now, she and another Wilton resident, Mary Kimberlin, have become the unofficial stewards of the perennial garden, and have taken it upon themselves to maintain it.
Both women describe themselves as self-taught gardeners who love working in the soil, spending time outdoors and creating a beautiful garden. They often refer to gardening sites on the Internet or gardening encyclopedias for information about what to add to the garden and how to tend to all the plantings there.
“We’ve made some mistakes in the past by introducing a perennial that turns out to be very invasive,” said Mary, “but with the Internet, we can find out whatever we need to know about what we’re planting.”
The garden, which spans an area 50 feet by 50 feet, has a casual and rambling feel to it.
“We originally referred to it as a Victorian garden,” Marie said with a laugh, “but it’s really a ‘mutt’ garden. Some of the peonies were planted years ago by Betty Ambler, but many of the other perennials are ones that Mary and I have brought in from our own gardens. Over the years, we’ve also received plantings from the Wilton Garden Club and Wilton residents, typically gardeners themselves.”
She and Mary have tried to plant perennials that are bee, bird and butterfly friendly, and that flower at different times of the growing season so there is always something in bloom. “We’ve tried to mix colors and textures so the garden is always visually interesting,” Marie added.
With only a $200 annual budget, they rely on donations not just for plantings, but for most of the other aspects of the garden including the materials they need to maintain it.
“Betsy and Jesse Fink donated the flagstone used for the walkway and patio, and the Wilton Garden Club donated the cast iron bench that sits in the middle of the garden. Farmer Jonathan, Ambler Farm’s director of agriculture, has given us compost, which helps nourish the plantings, and Gregory’s Sawmill has donated mulch, which helps keeps the weeds down,” Mary said. While both women spend several hours a week working in the garden, they also count on volunteers to help them with pruning, dividing and deadheading plants, weeding, watering and other tasks.
What was once the outhouse for the white house now serves as the garden tool shed. The garden itself is not fenced, and because some of the plantings such as the hostas attract deer, the women use an organic deer-repellent that Marie concocts in her kitchen.
“I got the recipe from one of the local nurseries,” she said. “I mix one heaping teaspoon of super hot cayenne pepper powder with a gallon of water, add two squirts of dishwashing detergent, a splash of vegetable oil, a teaspoon each of ground cloves and garlic powder, and let the mixture stand for a few days until it gets good and stinky.” She then pours it through a strainer before filling a sprayer and applying the concoction to any perennials the deer might be inclined to nibble on.
After the exterior work on the white house was completed, Marie and Mary put down grass seed to create a grassy area around the garden. Two years ago, they also started an herb garden adjacent to the kitchen. Once the interior renovation work is finished, and the white house is opened to the public, the women hope more people will become aware of and have the chance to appreciate Ambler Farm’s perennial garden.
“The public is welcome to come visit the garden now, while the white house interior renovation is underway,” said Marie. “It’s such a tranquil spot, and the perfect place for an informal picnic or a photo shoot. We’d love to have more visitors to the garden, and of course, we welcome anyone who wants to volunteer to help us maintain it. Volunteers don’t need to be gardening experts; they just have to enjoy getting their hands in the dirt and making the garden beautiful. Anyone interested in helping out can call us or just show up. Mary or I are usually there for a few hours almost every day in the spring, summer and early fall. ”
Anyone interested in volunteering in the Ambler Farm perennial garden may call Mary Kimberlin at 203-834-0561 or Marie Donahue at 203-762-7228.