The Oakes Garden of Sun and Shade

  • Post published:06/26/2009
  • Post comments:3 Comments
One of the sunny borders
One of the sunny borders

Pam Oakes assures me that neither her house, nor the lush surrounding gardens existed in 1976. When she and her husband Gordon first walked this piece of land by a pond once used for harvesting ice, they could not even imagine where to place a house until a friend bulldozed a stand of sumac and said “Build here!”  They did and she said it is a perfect site.

            The gardens grew and continue to grow. Oakes said she never had an overarching and unchanging vision. “Lots of little visions,” she said with a smile.

            Those little visions have been spurred by changes in the landscape, some intentionally as when they decided to take down 6 pine trees, and sometimes of necessity as when a large maple died, came down and opened a section of garden to sun that it had never known.  She assured me, “If you don’t like change, don’t garden. Nature is about big changes.”

            Although there is a great deal of variety in Oakes’ garden, the lesson I took away from my visit is the power of masses of a single plant. This garden has been growing, maturing – and changing – for decades, but creating a flowery mass can begin by planting at least three or more of the same  perennial together because they quickly become a single mass.

In this garden paradoxically consistent and contrasting plantings of lady’s mantle (alchemilla), various astilbes, heucheras, cranesbills and hostas create a peaceful inviting atmosphere. The skill Oakes has gained over years of working in her own garden, and designing for others, has made it all look easy, as if those plantings were simply inevitable.

Oakes’s gardens lead from sun to shade to sun. One gracefully curving sunny border was backed by trees and shrubs. “I love big shrubs,” she said, as we looked at a huge Kolkwitzia (Chinese beauty bush) part of a tapestry of trees and shrubs including a Japanese maple, winterberries and a katsura tree.  Using shrubs that will grow to substantial size in a relatively short time, like the kolkwitzia, is another way of achieving a mass of foliage and bloom.

Michael Dirr, who has written encyclopedic books on trees and shrubs, is Oakes’ guru. He will certainly steer people who are unfamiliar with many shrubs and their needs to plants of interest and dependability.

In front of those shrubs and trees are large plantings of peonies, baptisia (false indigo), daylilies, salvia, and other perennials. Oakes loves blue and when I visited many blue flowers were in bloom including several baptisias. There was the familiar old fashioned Baptisia australis with its clear blue blossoms and the hybrid Purple Smoke, an aptly descriptive name.

 Oakes warned me that before putting in a baptisia I should be very sure about the location. Baptisia has a long tap root and doesn’t like being moved.  That was an important warning for me because I am so apt to buy a plant impulsively, plant it any old where thinking I can always move it when the good spot it deserves occurs to me.

Oakes pointed out that, for the most part, she does not have rare or unusual plants in her garden. Most of them she gets from Bay State Perennials, which is near by and has a wide choice of good plants. “When you are designing for other people you need to choose plants that will survive and thrive,” she said.

Of course, every ‘rule’ is meant to be broken. Oakes said she had never seen an actual American ironwood tree, only read about it and seen photos, but she decided she must have one.  She called the arborist C. L. Frank in Northampton and asked him if he had such a tree. “He hesitated,” she said, “and then told me he had just acquired a 50 year old ironwood that had to be moved. It had a seven foot root ball; it was quite a job driving and moving it into place in the back yard.”  That was 20 years ago. The tree with its unique trunk and spreading canopy is now a major feature in the garden.  Oakes explained that it is rarely seen in gardens because it is so slow growing.

All the gardens including productive vegetable and herb gardens, berry patches and stone walls built by her husband Gordon, will be open to the public as part of the 21st Annual Franklin Land Trust Garden and Farm Tour on June 27 and 28th.  This year the tour is centered on the Deerfield to Whately area and includes charming and unique private gardens as well as farms of sometimes surprising scale. As a special feature tour tickets will also include admittance to three Historic Deerfield buildings and the PVMA’s Memorial Hall Museum.

 Tickets are $20 and good for the whole weekend. For more information about the Franklin Land Trust and the tour logon to or call 413-6259151, ext. 8.


After seeing how Oakes has used  daylilies as specimens in her beds, I want to mention a daylily sale at Glenbook Gardens (located off Leyden Road before you get to the covered bridge) on Saturday, June 20 from 9am to 4 pm. This is an opportunity to buy field grown daylilies by name, color or bloom season. Signs will be up to direct visitors to the sale. ###    There will be another sale there on July 11. A great opportunity.


June 13, 2009


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. sarah

    The land trust tour looks like a lot of fun–wish I could go!

  2. Frances

    How I wish I lived close enough to visit this garden. This is a woman to contend with, a fifty year old ironwood with a seven foot root ball is impressive. Even more so that it lived and has done so well. Mass plantings and lots of interesting shrubs is wise advice.

  3. admin

    Sarah – I love Garden Tour Season!
    Frances – That tree is magnificent, and so are the gardens. You’d really enjoy her art studio too. Its the rear section of the garage that hold all her’s husband’s substantial toys. Tractor things. Plural.

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