Dick and I are by no means the first people to enjoy this piece of land we call ‘our garden’, and I am sure we will not be the last.
We know nothing about the tenacious souls who, over 150 years ago now, ventured up into the hills of Goshen to build this house and clear the land to create charcoal to fuel the Brandon iron industry.
But we do know quite a bit about the Hayes family who lived and farmed here during the first half of the twentieth century. Some of their descendents still live in Goshen and many others have visited; all have stories to share.
In 1896 Edward Hayes and his wife Jenny (Leahy) moved from Vergennes to Goshen to raise their nine sons and farm the land. Back then hill farming was an extraordinarily hard way of life and surely these nine boys were indispensable to their parent’s endeavors
But, in addition to their farm work, in 1909 those nine boys found time to form the Hayes Brothers Baseball Team, and for many years this team of brothers was quite famous around here, often prevailing over teams that represented entire towns.
For fifty years and three generation the Hayes family continued to farm several hundred acres of difficult hilly land. It was not until 1948 that the third generation decided to seek tamer territory in Massachusetts.
In 1951 Maurice and Helen Romilly and their son Chris purchased the homestead along with 30 acres of land. While only briefly living here full time, they certainly gardened a bit and maintained the open space around the house.
Meanwhile all the remaining farmland was purchased by the Green Mountain National Forest, and it would not be long before all those fields, so painstakingly cleared over the preceding century, reverted to forestland, which is of course the true ‘natural landscape’ of New England.
Legacy of the farm
Although all the more distant fields have reverted to forest, around the house the legacy of the Hayes farm is still much in evidence.
According to family members, it was those nine boys, working together, who built this impressive stone retaining wall, some six-foot high and forty feet long, as the foundation for the rear wall of the milking barn. And today, a whole century later, while the milking barn is no longer standing, that wall remains as a marvelous testament of their skill and ingenuity.
And another large barn, built by some younger Hayes in the 1930s, still stands tall on the hill behind the house, next to the old potato field that is now my vegetable garden.
The Hayes family also planted a row of sugar maples, twenty foot on center, and 25 feet to the west of the house. Even now these ancient maples shade the house from the afternoon sun and each fall my heart glows at the sight of their brilliant gold against the clear blue autumn sky.
And, while it is hidden from sight, I am especially thankful for the beautiful dark rich soil that I inherited with the land. I see it as the gift of many cows over many years. Good soil is surely a blessing for every gardener.
Blueberries and Christmas Trees
After acquiring the house from Maurice Romilly back in 1978, I was perplexed by the random scattering of high-bush blueberry bushes throughout the lawn behind the house, as well as by a huge stand of tightly-planted, scruffy Norway spruce that stretched up the hill, spilling over into the National Forest land behind.
Another twenty years passed before Dick and I moved here permanently. Except for regular lawn mowing, by this time the land had essentially lain untouched for almost forty years.
Now I set out to create my ‘garden of a lifetime’. One of my first projects was to create a central garden bed behind the house, starting with the largest group of blueberry bushes. After carefully weeding the space and digging in plenty of compost, I then relocated the remaining blueberry bushes into this new bed and carefully pruned each bush.
Ever since then, every summer we have been rewarded with an amazing crop of fresh fruit over two whole months, with plenty to put aside in the freezer for the winter.
But it took a chance visit, about 15 years ago now, from Chris Romilly to throw light on the twin mysteries that we had inherited from the Romilly family: the reasons behind the random scattering of blueberry bushes in the lawn and the scruffy spruce forest on the hill.
Chris told us that in 1958 his mother planted dozens of blueberry bushes to make a huge S shape in the meadow. While only a small number survived the following forty years of neglect, those that did were certainly the strongest. Hence, some sixty years on, our wonderfully prolific blueberries!
The story of the Norway spruce comes with a cautionary tale for everyone who plants a garden today, and is concerned about how it will be a half century from now.
Chris also said that his father wanted to farm Christmas trees. So he planted out the large field above the house with rows of tiny Norway spruce all set out in straight lines about 15 feet apart. Alas, not long afterwards, their plans changed and the family returned to Long Island.
Left to their own devices, Norway spruce (Picea abies) quickly grow into huge 80-foot high trees with graceful drooping branches creating a circle some 50 feet across.
But Maurice Romilly’s trees were planted so close together that the branches were unable to grow outwards and finally died from lack of light. Now all that remains of his Christmas trees are tall spindly trunks with green tops.
Of course we need to remember that, fifty years ago, Maurice had no ready access to information on the growth habit of specific types of trees—something we take for granted in today’s digital world.
My dream is to have his spruce forest cut for timber and to replace it with a mix of our native white spruce and balsam fir. But the job is dauntingly huge so, for the time being, the remnants of his Christmas tree farm still remain up on the hill.
And looking forward
Like the Hayes and the Romillys before us, Dick and I are also stewards of this land, and we often ponder the legacy of our garden.
Surely I aim to be a responsible gardener, mindful of what I plant in the context of the wider environment and building the soil without resorting to chemicals. And, with today’s information resources just a click or two away so, before I dig I always check my plant choices.
While the garden perennials are unlikely to survive without a regular gardener, there is a good chance that the bones of the garden, especially the hardscape and woody plants, will still be here fifty years hence.
Here are some of the things that we have done over the past two decades that I hope will be enjoyed by the generations who follow:
Trees and shrubs
By removing a few trees we have preserved the view that the Hayes knew and loved. We have also planted smaller trees—including crab apples, serviceberries and river birch—to grace the property and define the garden.
And finally we added long-lasting shrubs—such as lilacs, roses, azaleas, summersweet, witch-hazel and ninebark— chosen especially for their delightful color and fragrance.
Over the years our friend and stonemason, Tammy Walsh, has built us many beautiful stonewalls and walkways, often using the stones from the property.
I am particularly fond of these stone steps she laid in a couple of years back. It seems fitting that they run between a contemporary Bright Lights’ azalea and an old maple tree planted by the Hayes all those years ago.
This past fall Tammy undertook a new project for us: to repair the century-old foundation wall of the large milking barn and then, using foundation rocks from an adjacent smaller barn, to extend the wall southwards to finish with a whimsical patio.
We were all amazed at the ingenuity of the ‘cave’, a large stone-lined opening in the barn wall where a year-round spring cooled the milk.
A lovely hedgerow
Along the roadside I selectively cleared the smaller trees that grew in a dense thicket, while deliberately retaining a large stand of white birch, together with several young sugar maples that over time will grow large.
Each year I plant more daffodils along the outer edge of the hedgerow to create a special springtime treat for all who travel this quiet country road, whether on foot, by bicycle or by car.
I also pruned the lower branches from the birch, both to show off their slender white trunks and to allow additional light to reach the native wild roses (Rosa blanca) that were growing below. Now, when the roses bloom in June, and again when their hips mature in the fall, it is a sight to behold.
A bridge in time
Living in this particular place at this particular time, I feel as though I am standing on a bridge that connects the generations who came before me with those who follow.
And that bridge is the land itself. It is the land that pulls me into the stories of people who, once upon a time, lived and worked here, and it is the land that leaves me contemplating my own legacy to the people who will follow afterwards.