Color in Massachusetts
In Natick, Massachusetts, seventeen miles west of Boston, Joyce Ahlgren Hannaford has created a garden that is a neighborhood landmark. She shares photos of her garden with us, along with the very personal associations her garden has for her, with plants and landscaping features that serve as memories of her friends, family, and past homes.
Joyce Ahlgren Hannaford lives in Natick, Massachusetts, seventeen miles west of Boston. Her garden, which wraps around the house, is a little under a quarter of an acre and is a neighborhood landmark.
“One day, on a Thursday, around 10 o’clock in the morning, I saw a man setting up with a tripod in my garden, taking pictures! I said hello, and he said, ‘Oh, I hope you don’t mind, I was doing some photography of your beautiful yard.’” Hannaford laughs, adding that she has impromptu visitors all the time, many of them stopping to admire the plethora of flowers that bloom in her yard. Hannaford, who is retired, lives with her husband Charlie, and frequently opens her garden to tours for her garden club.
Hannaford works on the garden full time, spending 40 to 60 hours a week from May to August. She spoke with us about the very personal associations her garden has for her and how the many plants and landscaping features serve as memories of her friends, family, and past homes.
How long have you lived in your house?
We bought the house twelve years ago, but it was built in 1923. It hadn’t had any attention in 35 years. The woman who lived here before us, had lived in it for 20 years, and it looked pretty bad. The house is a colonial with a gambrel roof and with two wings, but you couldn’t even tell, it was so overgrown with trees and shrubs. We took down about 40 trees—including two 100' white pines—and many overgrown shrubs. It took about five years for the yard to look full and the newly planted trees (30' to 35') to fill in.
After taking down the trees and ripping out the overgrown shrubs, we put in a 150' well. The next task was putting in the lawn because I couldn’t stand that we were just living with dirt all around. The well supplies me with free water for my 10-zone sprinkler system. Otherwise, the water bills alone would probably be around $5,000 a year.
Have you always been interested in gardening?
I’ve lived in Massachusetts since 1966 and I’ve always had gardens, even when I lived in an apartment. I grew up in New Hampshire and my parents were wonderful gardeners. When I lived in Boston in the early '90s, my little garden there grew and grew, and eventually won the mayor’s neighborhood Golden Trowel award.
When I remarried in 1998, we bought this house—it’s our first house together—and we started on the long list of renovations. My husband does not do the gardening, but he does do the large projects, including installing the pumping system for the well, the lawn maintenance, and helping me with the cleanup.
When the delivery of nine yards of organic compost arrives, he happily lets me spread that myself. The last delivery took two days to spread on all of the garden.
Tell us a little about the history of your garden.
When I moved from my apartment in Boston, I dug up a lot of my plants and I moved them here. A friend of mine moved from Fairfield, Connecticut, to Las Vegas, and she gave me some of her daylily collection. I had never really liked daylilies, but I always thought her garden was beautiful, so I happily agreed to take some.
What I realized was that if you don’t deadhead daylilies every day, they’ve got these slimy, dead, ugly blossoms and that’s why I didn’t like them. So I deadhead every day. I started keeping track of how many heads I take off and that way I know when the peak color is. The peak last year was 775 blooms in one day, which is usually around the second or third week in July.
I took 70 daylilies from my friend, but that was way back. I now have 400 or 500 daylillies. The other perennials number more than 1,000, plus the many annuals that round out the color each summer.
Tell us a little bit about the design of your garden.
Since our house was built in 1923 and the garage is not attached, there are windows all around the house. I wanted to have a view from each of our back windows, so I created a series of “rooms” in the back yard—there are seven rooms all together, including the main area with perennials, a shade garden, a memorial garden, and so on.
See more on how to create garden rooms.
Have you had any failures? What are the challenges in your garden? Which plants are your favorites?
I always seem to fail with delphiniums. I don't have enough moisture and humidity for them to be happy. This past summer I planted five new ones, and that same night, my resident bunny ate all of them to the ground!
I also struggle with peonies a little bit. Some of the peonies I have were given to me by a neighbor and are probably about 85 years old. They originally came from the old estate that was torn down in '30s.
We have had battles with red lily beetles, but spraying them with organic neem oil right from the beginning has helped a lot. I amend the soil every other year with organic compost. On very hot years, even despite the well and the sprinkler system, I still water by hand twice a day.
Some of my favorite plants that do well in the garden include dahlias, daylilies, turtlehead 'hotlips', echinacea, and phlox. I think I’m going to use larkspur this year, instead of the delphinium, to have the wonderful shades of blues and purples. I have a lot of Verbena bonarensis, which self-sows prolifically. That’s very nice.
Do you grow any vegetables?
The vegetable area has gotten smaller and smaller as the perennials have grown larger and taken over. I have planned a raised bed vegetable garden, with tomatoes, haricots verts, basil, and eggplant.
What is your color palette?
I used to like pink, purple, and white, but that theme just went out the window. My problem is that there are so many plants that I like, I use them all. In the garden closest to the house, I use the "hot colors" for the biggest impact. At the bottom of the trees, it’s too shady to grow flowers in the soil. So I put them in large pots around the base. That's the best way to get color all summer in the shady areas.
Did you have a specific garden philosophy when you were working on your garden?
Since we live on a busy street, I wanted to have a quiet oasis. I planned a cocktail patio, with an upper patio for dining and a small goldfish pond with running water. It’s important to have water to disguise the noise of the street. There’s a bench in the shade garden that overlooks the rest of the cottage garden.
Is there anything special about your garden?
My best friend Susan died years ago of ovarian cancer. Six months before she died, I took her to my hometown, Franconia, New Hampshire. As we were traveling around, we saw a huge pile of rocks where they had demolished a hotel. We took a bunch of rocks from the site, and the next day, I went back with my husband to get more so that we had enough to build a path from our driveway into the garden.
Susan liked to walk in through the back of our garden. She was an interior decorator and she said she liked being able to see a surprise around each corner. After she died, I took one of the rocks that we had scavenged together, and had it engraved "SUSAN'S WAY." This is her path in my memorial garden. Every year, her memorial garden is a just a little different, but always it's a focal point in the yard.
Tell us a little bit about your neighborhood.
Our backyard neighbors told us they bought their house so that they could look at a beautiful garden without any of the work, because their house overlooks ours! Of course, I’ve gotten them into gardening now!
Hannaford's house and backyard, as photographed from their neighbors' house.
What are you planning on doing differently this year?
We share a private road with four other families. I planted an area on the edge of the road with grasses that are now seven feet tall. In July, I am going to cut them back by half—to see if I can keep them from falling over. The grasses are choking out the daylilies and the smaller perennials in front, and maybe by cutting them back I can have more color in that area through the summer. I’m also going to be very selective how I fertilize. I will fertilize my annuals, but not my perennials other than in early spring. I’ve been using a new fertilizer these past couple of years (it's my secret!), and the perennials have been taking over. So I’m not going to fertilize them during the summer and see how it goes.
Hannaford's garden during a blizzard in 2011.
Do you have any advice for new gardeners?
Don’t get discouraged. If something doesn’t work, dig it up and move it. Not every plant is going to be happy everywhere. I think gardeners are the eternal optimists. It’s always about next year!