Gardens of Possibility

  • Post published:10/07/2009
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Marie Stella
Marie Stella










            “We live where there is so much possibility in the landscape,” Marie Stella said to me as we stood on the deck of Beaver Lodge, her house in Ashfield, looking through the woods down to the beaver pond.  Stella has entered into most of those possibilities, using native plants, planting vegetables and fruits where a lawn might be expected, harvesting rainwater, using stone from the house site to form walls of the retention pond, and turning the oaks that had to be cut into flooring.

            All of her projects are in aid of creating a sustainable home and landscape that would use little power and other resources while protecting the environment.

            Both the house and the gardens are still works in progress because although Stella has given up her garden design studio in New York City which she has moved into her house, continuing that business, also continuing to lecture, leading garden tours and teaching.

            Her teaching has many facets from working with graduate students from the Landscape Institute at Boston Architectural College, and more informally to opening her LEED Platinum house (the only residence with that high environmental certification in western Massachusetts) to the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) tour of Green Buildings today, October 3rd from 10am to 4 pm. Logon to for full directions to Stella’s house and many other green buildings in our area. There is no registration or fee. Just show up at the houses you are interested in.

            Through her own Beaver Lodge Environmental Center she is also offering a five weekend workshop on Permaculture Design with Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to Zuiko Taro, that will focus on the principles of permaculture, building healthy soils, edible landscaping, water management and much more. Weekends are spaced throughout the year; participants can join during any month.

            I expressed my own wonder at the scope of the domestic projects while maintaining a full professional work schedule, but Stella said, “I love to wake up to this challenge every day. I find it so exciting, but at the same time feel incredible tranquility in this beautiful place.”

Soil Building
Soil Building

            Stella walked me through the raised bed gardens on the south side of the house. She explained that these beds are filled with handmade soil. During the year that the house was being built she took the discarded sheet rock which is mostly gypsum, and laid it where she planned garden beds. She covered this with leaves and weeds, any greenery that needed to be cut, and rotted hay. After that first year she used rot resistant catalpa beams to form the raised beds, and continued filling those beds. It was a form of sheet composting.

            She added some finished compost from her old house, worm castings from her worm bin and planted winter rye as a cover crop last year.

Winter rye cover crop
Winter rye cover crop

This spring she turned the winter rye over with a garden fork and planted a full range of vegetables from peas to peppers without doing much cultivating. Everything did well, but the new soil layer is still quite thin so the soil building goes on. Where she has finished the harvest she has planted winter rye as she did last fall. It may look like grass now, but in the spring she will turn it over again. The green shoots and the roots decompose adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil.

Cover crops not only improve and enrich the soil they help keep down the weed population.

The wide paths between the raised beds, and indeed the whole area around the house, have been covered with wood chips.  There is no unsustainable lawn.

This sunny vegetable garden, with perennial crops like raspberries, red and black, blueberries, rhubarb, cardoons and purple asparagus off to one side, is a constant invitation to come out and be in the garden.

Vegetable gardens need sun, but they also need a steady supply of water. Our springs and summers do not often give us that steady supply. This year’s July was the rainiest July on record, and September was the driest September in many years. Stella’s answer to this challenge is a rainwater collection system.  She calculates that rain gutters on the roof will deliver 30,000 gallons of water over the course of the year to a 550 gallon cistern and to a water retention pond.

The cistern water will be gravity fed to the garden, and a solar pump will bring water from the pond to where it is needed in the garden.

There are more plans. She has the supports ready for a grape arbor. A playhouse, built in the same green manner as the house, will soon be ready for visiting youngsters. She’ll need a garage and thinks it could have a sod and wildflower roof.  Maybe a strawbale shed.

“I like there never being an end to the possibilities,” Stella said.  She knows that not all these ideas will appeal to everyone, but she is pleased that her house and landscape contain dozens of lessons for her students, as well as for those friends and visitors who come by.  “People will see what is possible and make their own choices about what they can, and want to do.”

For information about the Permaculture Design course email Marie Stella at  If you want to visit the house today, Oct. 3, logon to website for full directions to the Beaver Lodge. 


 Between the Rows    October 3, 2009


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