A Mishmash of Wonderful
While I was going over my notes from interviewing Fran Boninti, I couldn’t help wondering how one person can have so much energy! When I googled that question, the usual advice appeared: get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, eat the right foods, exercise, spend time outdoors, don’t over-caffeinate. In addition to these regular do-and-don’t lists, another intangible explanation came to the fore: “See the glass as half full.” I think that may be the energy driver with Fran.
Fran Boninti has accrued over 12,000 volunteer hours since becoming a Piedmont Master Gardener in 1991. She was the state horticulture chair for the Garden Club of Virginia, is a graduate of the first class of the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards, a charter member of the Jefferson Chapter Virginia Native Plant Society, a member of the Rivanna Garden Club, and a board member of the Ivy Creek Foundation for nine years. She has also been a Monticello guide, as well as a guide for their “Saturdays in the Garden” tour. This is a list of her memberships and volunteer activities over the years. She makes a difference by participating so fully.
Our interest in talking with Fran for the newsletter is that she exemplifies how a Master Gardener can impact the community (see the feature article in this issue, “What Do Master Gardeners Do?). Her home garden, a lifelong “labor” of love, is also a living classroom for fellow gardeners. This interview is really a collaborative article, based on a Q & A format.
Fran, you and your garden have been together for about 40 years! It must be so special to have a garden that mirrors the course of your life and your interests.
Yes, 40 years this coming summer! I tell people, “Don’t move, and you’ll inevitably have a great garden!” You can’t buy time, which is what a garden needs most.
As you look back, what was that early garden like?
Awful! Lots of mishmash for sure. We had the house built when we were 28 years old, had an infant, and not a lot of money to spend. I started almost everything from seed, or planted gifts from friends and family. Our upper property was compacted, red clay. It had been a cattle farm for at least a century, and hadn’t been cultivated. I was raised in an area that was glacial soil. My dad was proud of the fact that he could plunge his arm, almost to his elbow, into his soil. Wasn’t everywhere like that? Not in central Virginia! The first thing I had to do was to work the soil and, consequently, I lost plants because the soil wasn’t cared for before planting.
Did you come from a gardening family?
Luckily, both sets of grandparents and my parents were avid gardeners. The troops showed up at our new house! Mom and dad helped tremendously. Daddy tilled (though this is not recommended now), and supplemented the soil with manure. He helped put in our small vegetable garden, as well as plantings around the house. We were surrounded by ALL sun. One poor native plum tree (still there) on the east side of our house provided a shade “garden” for a hosta gifted by my parents. The hosta is still there! Even my mother-in-law, an apartment dweller her whole life, helped plant azaleas with me. I cherish all these things because she and my father have passed.
Did you manage to get your husband and children involved too?
Although my husband, Andrew, grew up in an apartment, and knew nothing about gardening, his patience makes him a better gardener than I am. I’m not allowed to divide plants because I tend to mutilate them, while Andrew gently digs and coaxes. He’s planted almost every tree and shrub on our property–sometimes more than once! I like moving things around, and as I said, Andrew is patient! As our daughters grew, they helped us move rocks, lined walkways with bricks, planted, weeded, and enjoyed being outside with us. A joy for sure.
How did your interests change over time?
I have always been interested in native plants. Since childhood, I’ve loved insects and animals, and have wanted to plant anything that would attract either to the garden. I was lucky to be present at the first meeting of the Jefferson Chapter Native Plant Society in the early 80s. That set me on the right path. I’m a strong believer in Dr. Doug Tallamy’s message [author of Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope], but anyone who gardens can tell you that more critters are attracted to the straight native species than to plants from Asia or Europe. People who deny our earth is in trouble are not gardeners, or they haven’t stayed in one place long enough to notice the subtle changes around them. Andrew and I keep a running tally of missing invertebrates and birds. Some vireos, certain warblers, chimney swifts, whippoorwills, and woodcocks are but a few of the birds we haven’t seen, or heard, for some time. We think that adding native plants to our property is a duty, rather than a task or a limitation.
Your garden is predominantly one of native plants. Does planting a nonnative put you in a state of guilt, or can you just enjoy something beautiful?
I am not a purist, and I think we can have a few nonnatives tucked in. I love our evergreen nonnative azaleas, planted in the early years, that provide shelter during snowfall for many birds, especially for native sparrows. Birds flit in and out of the azaleas and use them for nesting. But those azaleas are surrounded on our property by native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. We certainly enjoy growing vegetables, the majority of which are nonnatives. In direct answer to your question, a plant annoys me, more than guilts me, when it doesn’t offer anything useful for the critters. For example, I enjoy the Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield Pink’, which is full of bees, including honeybees, but I wonder if this plant offers the right kind of nutritional balance for native critters? This is an important question that we are learning more about. I do get aggravated with things like butterfly bush (buddleia). In addition to not having the right nectar for our butterflies, they seed everywhere. I haven’t grown them in over 20 years and don’t miss them a bit. Another issue is “frankennatives,” which is a term for hybrids, such as double-flowered plants, of native plants. Novice gardeners with good intentions buy these so-called natives, not realizing that they are not always beneficial, or even morphologically accessible, to visiting insects. Sometimes, when I see people deciding which plants to buy, I am greatly tempted to offer unasked-for-advice! But in all honesty, the fact that people are gardening is a win! The rest is education and AVAILABILITY. But that’s another larger topic.
Your garden has many pathways and steps which make it more beautiful, as well as more accessible. How did you manage those big hardscape projects?
We built pathways and steps out of “urbanite”, aka, very cheap, broken concrete. When a nursery (The Gardens off 29 north) was closed and demolished, I paid $40 for all the broken concrete that was their flooring. Andrew broke up the pieces, and brought them to me in a wheelbarrow. We put in a pond, and collected river rocks in our van. We were much stronger then! Rock work is beyond us now. Many lovely people have helped us over the years by allowing us to collect rocks on their properties. We also had a young man build the urbanite flooring over by our nursery areas. We also added a shed playhouse, and a fun “outhouse-like” shed. Fortunately, we never got into projects that would have changed the natural topography of our property. It retains the dips of soft hills and flat areas original to when we first moved here and built the house.
How would you describe your garden now?
Mature, like Andrew and I! Our tree groves, mostly tulip trees or tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera), were not there when we first moved in. It was all brambles. The tulip trees are now major shade makers. The trees and shrubs planted three decades ago in the upper part of our property are now giving shade. Plants are reproducing like crazy in the beautiful soil we have worked so hard to develop. A rhododendron we planted many years ago came with a few accidental spring beauties (Claytonia virginica). Those spring beauties are now everywhere! That happens when the conditions are right. Many other plants are doing the same. It is well known that as young gardeners, we garden in the sun; as older gardeners, we (should) garden in the shade. Our vision of shade is now a reality, just when we need it most.
You’ve been active in so many garden organizations. I know you love to share both what you’ve learned, and what you plant. How have those activities influenced your garden design and objectives?
I learn so much from novice gardeners. They think their questions are silly and redundant, when in fact, they are fabulous! I always go home with more questions, and I love delving deeper. Andrew has mixed feelings when I make a new “discovery,” as it inevitably leads to the purchase of a new plant(s), or his moving something else. We are all lifelong learners, and I still have a lot to learn and correct! It also makes me want to improve things, such as putting in more paths to make it easier to observe plants and insects. We enjoy sharing our garden with students and fellow gardeners, and I am sure we will continue tweaking our gardens for that reason.
Now we get to that list of contributions I mentioned earlier. This list is meant not to intimidate, but to inspire other gardeners to follow in the very busy footsteps you continue to leave. I read that in 1998, you were a major contributor to both the inspiration and perspiration for planting more than 130 native trees and shrubs in the area around the education building at Ivy Creek Natural Area, a spot that is now enjoyed by so many. You worked with a team of 27 Master Gardeners, and persuaded 16 nurseries to donate plant material. In recognition of this project, and for other conservation work, you were awarded the DeLacy Gray Medal for Conservation in 2001. The award also cites your teaching young and old to identify, safeguard and propagate native plants; spearheading development of the Holkham Hollow Natural Area; and heading the building of a butterfly garden and bluebird trail for the Meriwether Lewis Elementary School. In 2013, you spearheaded the design and implementation of a native planting project at Hatton Ferry. Phew!! Firstly, on behalf of our readers, thank you! When you go back to visit these public spaces now, what turned out to be some of your teams’ best ideas?
Just like our own gardens, public places evolve. Initially, they’re fabulous, but things happen that you can’t foresee or predict. Lack of care is one such problem. Many projects I’ve been involved with (my garden club, the Rivanna Garden Club, was instrumental in a number of them) were initiated with the agreement that we would provide ongoing care for the completed project for 5 years, and then the apron strings would be cut. A small number of projects failed, but we learn from that as well.
Hatton Ferry, sponsored by the Rivanna Garden Club, was another story. With the blessing of my club, I did a lot of research, and tried to include only plants native to Albemarle County. [For a good resource on plants native to Albemarle County, see this link.] Club members came out and planted MANY plants in one day. Almost immediately, wayward weed whackers, as well as deer, beaver, and voles, discovered this new smorgasbord of plants. To add insult to injury, a massive rainstorm inundated the whole area, washing away the new plantings downriver. During the planning phase, I had tried to imagine outside threats, and provide protection against them, but then Mother Nature decided to redesign it all anyway! Our club’s Hatton Ferry project continued for a few more years with replantings and maintenance. A general lesson learned from the MANY projects I’ve been involved in is that you must be committed to anything you do. Without commitment, the effort becomes either a shadow of what it could have been or, a complete failure.
Fran, we are grateful for all you have done and continue to do. We look forward to visiting your incredible gardens, and learning from your experience, your curiosity, and your natural ability to enjoy giving. Thank you!
Rivanna Garden Club 90th Celebration History – 1922-2012, Betsy Henneman Woodard, July 24, 2013, https://therivannagardenclub.org/site/2013/07/24/pellentesque-habitant-morbi-tristique-senectus/
“Blooming Bountiful: In a Magical Ivy Garden, Change is a Constant,” c-ville, https://www.c-ville.com/blooming-bountiful-in-a-magical-ivy-garden-change-is-a-constant/
Piedmont Natives – Plant Database, http://webapps.albemarle.org/NativePlants/default.aspx
Feature Photo: Patio Garden Photo: Fran Boninti