ABOVE On the single-acre Ellsworth property Mary Blackstone’s family has nurtured for 80 years, black-eyed Susans, cardinal flowers, coneflowers, and great blue lobelias surround a rock-bound pond, tansies and rooftop grapevines envelop an octagonal tool shed, and scallions and cherry tomatoes thrive in giant raised beds.
TEXT BY VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVE DOSTIE & MICHAEL SEAMANS
On the day Mary Blackstone was born, her father harvested asparagus for the first time from the crowns he’d planted five years earlier. This spring, when Blackstone turned 72, bright-green spears came out of that very same garden.
The asparagus bed is one of many enduring ties to Blackstone’s parents at her childhood home in Ellsworth. Her white, octagonal tool shed used to be her playhouse and, before that, the attendant’s hut at her father’s filling station. The formal herb garden encircled by a boxwood hedge is her mother’s creation, little changed from when it was dug and planted decades ago. Even Jay Barnes, who gardens alongside Blackstone and cares for the place in fall and winter when she and her husband, Cameron Louis, are working at the University of Regina, in Saskatchewan, is a generational touchstone: he was hired 31 years ago by Blackstone’s mom.
“My life is circumscribed by this property,” Blackstone says. “This is where my heart is.” No matter where her and Louis’s academic careers have taken them — Pennsylvania, Ontario, England, Saskatchewan — Blackstone has always considered Ellsworth home, returning every Christmas and most summers. She took over management of the gardens when her mother was no longer able to care for them (her father died when she was 9). “It’s really been a small subsistence farm ever since my parents set it up,” Blackstone says. “As far as they were concerned, there was little difference between growing vegetables and growing flowers. In one of the earliest pictures of me, I’m sitting among pansies in the asparagus bed.”
Closer to the house, she and Barnes have greatly expanded her parents’ perennial gardens, and little lawn remains on the one-acre parcel. The centerpiece is a small rock-edged pond installed under a gnarled, multi-trunk crabapple tree and ringed by black-eyed Susans, cardinal flowers, coneflowers, and great blue lobelias.
Blackstone relies on organic methods for pest control: yes, the sweet peas attract aphids, but the aphids are gobbled up by green lacewings. The gardens produce enough flowers, vegetables, and surplus plants to stock a roadside stand that makes a little money and a lot of friends. “I like to connect with neighbors,” she says. “Gardening is not just about growing stuff. It’s about negotiating with nature — and getting people to see the benefits of that relationship.”