Meet Laurie Benoit, Master Gardener
Contributed by Sherry Wilson
Ten years ago Laurie Benoit purchased seven acres of land in Buckland, only a mile from the dairy farm where she grew up. “We used to hay this field,” she remembered. They used horses to pull the hay wagons.
At the top of a steep driveway, the field is backed by a woodlot. Laurie’s son, Bob Benoit, built the house for his mother and her husband Barry Del Castilho.
“Nature was allowed to come into my house as much as I could let it,” she explained. As for her gardens, which surround the house, “My philosophy is to let nature takes its course. I do very little deadheading. I enjoy watching nature do her thing. I’m interested in seeing what happens with plants when we don’t do much.”” She added, “If it doesn’t like it here, I don’t grow it.”
Laurie has created a charming landscape around her house, a true country garden with lots of native plants.
A row of white Hydrangea paniculata lines the driveway up the hill. “Very few of the plants I bought at nurseries. Most of them I scrounged. There was a man on Rocky Hill Road in Hadley from whom I bought the hydrangeas.”
Laurie went to plant swaps, including one in South Deerfield. Participants are supposed to bring plants to swap but at first she didn’t have anything to bring. “I was one of the ‘low lives’ so I got to choose at the end of the swap.” Several red mulberry trees came from the Soil Conservation District sale at which she worked as a master gardener intern in 2015. She also planted two redbuds, two flowering dogwoods, a river birch, a weeping flowering cherry and crabapples.
Butterfly bushes, various succulents and one of her favorite shrubs are planted near the deck. Beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica) isn’t native but she grows it because she loves it. Its myriad tiny flowers in late summer are followed by neon purple berries that really stand out in the landscape and are eaten by the birds. “It’s one of the ones I paid money for-- $25 at the Northampton Farmers Market,” she said.
Laurie initially learned about gardening from her stepdad on the farm. “He loved flowers. We had a huge vegetable garden and a large share of it was annual flowers.” She said gladiolas and salvia were among his favorites.
As an adult she got interested in landscaping but didn’t have a real chance to practice her ideas until they moved back to Buckland. “This is all kind of my vision,” she said. “I just love to grow things and have my hands in the dirt.”
entrance to her garden and house is marked by an arbor over which is
draped a sweet autumn clematis. Huge orange Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia
rotundifolia) add color to the arrangement. A flagstone walk leads to
the front door and expands into a terrace with a small pool adorned with
a fountain with a copper wire sculpture created by a local artist.
up the hill from the arbor is a perennial garden with flowers from
summer to fall. “I love hybrid lilies,” she said. “Yes, I get lily leaf
beetle. I hand pick them when they come out. The beetle is easy to see,
not like aphids or mites. It’s easy to understand their life cycle. They
attack the lilies when the plants are quite small.”
the spring there are scillas and grape hyacinths and what she likes to
call ‘narcissists.” She doesn’t grow tulips because of the “traffic”
from deer as well as bears, bobcats, woodchucks and foxes from the
Peonies follow the bulbs and then summer-blooming hibiscus, a lovely white with a purple center, and Physostegia virginiana or so-called obedient plant. There is a healthy stand of this plant with long-lasting lavender spikes but she said she regrets planting it because it takes over.
At the front door are pots of tuberous begonias and beds of hostas and astilbes. A row of day lilies and bearded iris line the path to the south-facing morning deck. On both sides of the house are retaining walls made of stone dug up from the property during the house construction.
Laurie said she learned about the master gardener program years ago when she worked at Amherst Town Hall. “George Goodwin is responsible,” she said. “He was on the Zoning Board of Appeals and I would go to his house to deliver materials for meetings. He had a great garden and was fully engaged with master gardeners.” That was in the 1990s. (George is now in his 90s and retired from gardening.)
When she saw an article by Pat Leuchtman in The Recorder in 2014 announcing the 2015 training program, Laurie immediately applied.
What did she learn from the master gardener program? “I think sustainability is the first thing I learned. I grew up on a farm and I realized that a lot of the practices of New England farmers were sustainable.”
She stated, “The biggest thing I got was how devastating chemicals are for the birds and bees in landscaping. George Stephan and I put together a program on ‘Good Bugs—Bad Bugs’ for a 4-H group. It’s important to me to teach young people that chemicals are bad for our environment.”
down the slope from the deck is a stunning fire pit created in memory
of her son, Bob, who died unexpected in 2013 at the age of 44. Two
arched stones frame a view of the rising moon at certain times. The
upright plinths go as deep into the ground as they are above it. Three
huge rectangular stone slabs provide benches for enjoying the fire at
the base of the arches. Laurie said the slabs were originally the
foundation of an abandoned barn in Sandisfield. Matt Shippee, owner of
Shippee Stonework in Hatfield who was a close friend of Bob Benoit, did
son was someone who loved stone. It’s quiet here when you lie on the
stones. It’s gorgeous—the bugs not withstanding,” she said.