Last Friday the Woodland Pond Gardeners hosted their fifth annual Garden Tour, with this year’s theme “Summer in Bloom — The Joys of June!” Residents and visitors hopped buses or simply strolled past lush and colorful displays of blooming yards, vegetable beds and clusters of potted plants that flourish in the retirement community. “Everybody who ever did gardening wants to get their hands in the dirt,” Gardening Group member Adrienne Turner told the New Paltz Times. “And the people in the Cottages are the better gardeners.”
Indeed, while inhabitants of some of the ground-floor apartments in the complex cultivate handsome garden plots outside their doors, and other residents claim raised beds in a Community Garden outside the Art Studio, it quickly became apparent that some of the most serious and committed gardeners at Woodland Pond are Cottage residents. The first one on the tour and the nearest to the entrance, Cottage 101, the home of Cynthia and Armen Fisher, also boasts one of the most spectacular gardens.
“I’m a compulsive gardener, since I was a little girl,” Cynthia Fisher said. “My family had a Victory Garden in World War II, in Forest Hills. I was 8 or 9 when I started picking blackberries and planting vegetables.”
Fisher’s love for the natural world and growing things led her to a distinguished career as a biologist. In the 1980s she became a feminist heroine of sorts, making waves in the halls of academe when she brought a lawsuit against Vassar College for denying her tenure because she was a married woman and for paying her less than male faculty members in comparable positions. She won her case in court and awarded damages, but the decision was later overturned on appeal.
Though there were times in her life — such as when she was in graduate school — that Fisher had no time or space to garden, it was never far from her thoughts. Eventually she and her husband bought an 80-acre former subsistence farm on Lily Lake Road in Highland, which “took up a whole valley,” Fisher recalled. Retirement from academia gave her much more time to pursue her passion, and now she spends long days digging up the “terrible” soil in her backyard, adding amendments and making beautiful things grow. The Fishers have lived in the Cottage for a year-and-a-half, she said, but “We still have part of the farm, including 20 years of well-rotted horse manure.”
The previous residents of Cottage 101 had not been much interested in gardening. “There was not a plant here,” Fisher said, gesturing around her now-lush rear gardens. “This was absolutely bare.” She has planted a handsome Japanese weeping cherry tree, many roses, perennial beds, bulbs and tubers including “hundreds of daffodils,” salad greens and herbs. Her shade garden features myriad varieties of hostas, many of them overflow from the “friendship garden” that she shares with fellow Woodland Pond resident Cynthia Lee. There’s a compost pile in one corner, birdhouses and bird and hummingbird feeders hung from poles and mounted atop the rail fence.
Fisher’s latest project is an iris bed tucked against the Cottage’s foundation, which she is digging to a depth of 18 inches using hand tools only. “I do it all myself,” she said, showing the large, heavy iron “undertaker’s crowbar” that she uses to dislodge boulders and concrete slabs that were used as backfill when the Cottages were built. “It is challenging to tackle these backyards!”
The day of the tour, Fisher was recuperating from cataract surgery and under doctor’s orders to forego heavy gardening tasks for a while. So she gave the New Paltz Times reporter a guided tour of her neighbors’ yards, pointing out how each Cottage-dweller had customized their buildings and landscapes with bump-out glassed-in porches or flagstone patios or wooden decks or bluestone terraces, many of them surrounded by well-tended plantings. She stopped to ooh and aah over Cynthia Lee’s roses and examined the unusual blossoms of a bellflower. In Maddy Lee’s front yard, the two women traded tips about how to control lily beetles; Lee pointed out the bird’s nest tucked into one of her hanging potted begonias and the Allium schubertii plants that still look spectacularly ornamental even after the spiky blossoms are dead and dry.
Taking leave of Fisher following the Cottage tour, this reporter paid a visit to the Community Garden, where another active member of the Gardening Group, Vivian Yettru, was taking shelter from the hot sun under an overhang. “People have a choice of whether they want to grow vegetables or flowers or both,” she said, pointing out the contents of various raised beds. Tomato plants were a popular option here, some of them growing up against a trellis leaned against the wall of the apartment complex. One resident was growing heirloom tomatoes from seed. Yettru showed me Faye Bishop’s butterfly bush, already huge and destined to sprawl even higher, as well as a row of large container beds raised up on legs, “for those who can’t bend. We’ll have more of these next year.”
Yettru’s own raised bed was densely abloom with candy-striped petunias and bachelor buttons that grow so prolifically that she had to prune them back this year and give many plants away. But if gardening is hard work, that doesn’t necessarily make it a chore. “This is great fun,” she said, “not having to care for that huge yard you had at home, but just being able to get your fingers in the dirt and watch things grow.”