For Marie Donahue, helping out wherever she can at Ambler Farm brings back memories of her childhood. She was born at Breezy Hill Farm, three doors down from the Amblers’ farm and grew up in a house on Skunk Lane, across the street from their property.
“My parents were friends with the Amblers and my sister and I used to play with Betty Ambler,” recalls Donahue. “We picked blueberries, huckleberries and mushrooms on their property and skated on the ponds that are now part of the land that Rolling Hills Country Club leased from the Amblers for its golf course.” As neighbors, the families often helped each other out.
“Occasionally the Amblers’ herd of cows would wander off, and my father would call the Amblers to let them know. When our cow was dry, my sister would go up to the Amblers with a pail to get milk from one of their cows.”
After Betty Ambler died in 1999, and Wilton residents approved buying a 22-acre parcel of land from her estate to preserve open space, Donahue was asked to join the steering committee that formed to determine how best to use the property.
“I was thrilled to be involved, but we had a huge amount of work to do.” The buildings on the property were in poor condition and needed to be stabilized. The grounds were covered with brush and debris. The steering committee recruited people from the Kiwanis Club, the Wilton Garden Club and the Wilton Historical Society to help.
Donahue recalls that as they cleaned up the property, they found the remnants of Betty Ambler’s perennial garden behind the white house.
“Nancy Husta, who was a member of the steering committee and the Wilton Garden Club, and I decided to restore the gardens. We raked out all the dead leaves, pulled out or trimmed perennials that were overgrown, and planted daffodil bulbs.”
Since then, Donahue has continued to remain involved in maintaining the perennial gardens. She can often be found there from early spring through late fall, weeding, trimming and watering. For almost 15 years, since the neglected garden was discovered, she has worked side by side with another dedicated volunteer, Mary Kimberlin, who recently moved from Wilton. The garden, which is now in pristine condition, includes peonies that were originally planted by Betty Ambler, as well as perennials that Kimberlin and Donahue have transplanted from their own gardens, and plantings donated by the Wilton Garden Club and Wilton residents who are avid gardeners. This past summer, Kimberlin and Donahue planted an herb garden at the edge of the perennial garden. Because the garden is not fenced, Donahue frequently sprays it with a homemade natural deer repellent.
In addition to volunteering her time to maintain the perennial garden, Donahue often rolls up her sleeves to help Jonathan Kirschner, Ambler Farm’s director of agriculture and resident farmer with his chores.
“I am happy to do whatever comes up. I’ll help pick peas, beans or other vegetables that need to be harvested.”
She also helps him water the seedlings he starts each spring in the greenhouse and bundles up bunches of carrots and arugula to be sold at Ambler Farm’s market stand on Saturdays and at the farmers’ market at the Wilton Historical Society on Wednesdays.
With the 14th annual Ambler Farm Day just a few days away, Donahue recalls the first time the steering committee discussed holding this event.
“We weren’t sure how many people would be interested in coming to the farm, but the first year, we had over 100 people of all ages attend.”
One of the most popular activities at Ambler Farm Day is the apple slingshot, which Donahue suggested including after seeing one in action in an orchard in Bennington, Vt.
“I bought a slingshot from the orchard owners and brought it back to Wilton, and then drove around to all the local orchards begging for apples,” she said with a laugh. Since that first Ambler Farm Day in 2001, Donahue has been gratified to watch this annual event grow to attract thousands of people from all over the area.
Asked why she puts in so much time volunteering at Ambler Farm, Donahue doesn’t hesitate with her response.
“It’s a been a privilege for me to help with the farm. I think it’s one of the most wonderful purchases the town has made. It’s such a beautiful spot; there’s nothing else like it in the area.”
But she is also quick to add that Ambler Farm relies on volunteers for so many of its programs.
“We can always use more volunteers. And we can always use more financial donations to help fund the farm’s many wonderful programs such as the maple sugaring program, the perennial and vegetable gardens, and the continued restoration of the many structures on the property. Funding is also needed to support projects that the Friends of Ambler Farm, the non-profit organization that grew from the original steering committee, would like to implement in the future.”