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‘Learn how to garden with nature, and not fight it all the time’

Gardening expert George Stanchfield brings plantings and flowers for a window box as he works on a lakeside property in Plympton, getting it ready for spring,
Gardening expert George Stanchfield brings plantings and flowers for a window box as he works on a lakeside property in Plympton, getting it ready for spring,David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Gardening guru George Stanchfield’s advice for this time of year is sweet music for those slow to get moving after a long pandemic year: Go easy on the cleanup until temperatures are above 55 degrees both day and night.

“Beneficial insects are sleeping right now in your garden, so I don’t like to disturb them,” said the Pembroke resident. “Don’t do a lot of pruning in your yard, either; you might see it as deadwood, but insects see a habitat.”

Instead, Stanchfield recommends focusing on adding quick color to the outdoor scene by planting pots and window boxes with cold-tolerant plants such as pansies, violas, heuchera, calendula, or dianthus. Snapdragons, alliums, osteospermum, stock, and petunias are other good choices, he said.

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And then use plants like Swiss chard, kale, and dusty miller for added texture, he said, as well as sweet alyssum, cyclamen, peas, mustard, kohlrabi, and cabbage.

“Kale is beautiful as a plant itself,” he said. “Make [your planting] interesting, as long as you’re getting something green.”

Another sure way to make your garden beds look less bedraggled is to edge them, Stanchfield said. “Nothing is more beautiful than a clean edge,” he said.

George Stanchfield works on a lakeside property in Plympton.
George Stanchfield works on a lakeside property in Plympton. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When gardening gets into full swing – after the first of May – Stanchfield advocates getting rid of some of your lawn (he’d be happy if half of the area’s lawns disappeared) and replacing it with native grasses and other native plants that some might consider weeds. His personal favorite is goldenrod, which he stressed should not be confused with ragweed, which blooms at the same time.

“People are allergic to ragweed, not goldenrod,” he said. “Goldenrod is an absolutely perfect plant. Over 500 species of insects feed off it, and that attracts birds that feed off those insects.”

Milkweed also should be left alone, he said, because it’s food for monarch butterflies. “Learn how to garden with nature, and not fight it all the time,” he said.

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Stanchfield recommends using only organic fertilizers, and then sparingly. “Fertilizer is not medicine,” he said. He uses pine needles for mulch, and rejects what he calls “junk in a bag” and any wood chip mulch that has been dyed.

“Beneficial insects are sleeping right now in your garden, so I don’t like to disturb them,” said George Stanchfield.
“Beneficial insects are sleeping right now in your garden, so I don’t like to disturb them,” said George Stanchfield.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Stanchfield dispenses his tips through his Facebook page, South of Boston Gardeners with George Stanchfield, which has about 3,500 members, many of whom regularly pose questions, post pictures, and share information. He has been gardening professionally for about 35 years, after leaving a job with Rand McNally because, he said, “the corporate life was never anything that interested me.”

He grew up in rural northwestern Maine — where his father farmed, logged, and guided hunters and fishermen — and then in New Jersey, where his Maine accent baffled his more metropolitan peers. But he always felt most comfortable out in nature, he said.

An artist, his work — not surprisingly — features landscapes and birds. He also just mastered the art of weaving twigs – creating a wattle screen and a twig bench this past winter from saplings he’d cleared at his Pembroke property.

He’s worked at garden centers, run greenhouses, and as a garden designer. For about 15 years, he managed several large properties for a wealthy South Shore family, including a 280-acre vegetable and flower farm, and a Duxbury mansion with extensive formal gardens.

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Now “semi-retired,” Stanchfield said he gets a lot of satisfaction from the Facebook page, which has a chatty tone, lots of friendly banter, and no ads.

“It’s been a rough time for everyone, and you need a place to go,” he said. “It’s an easy place to come and share interests and learn something. And if anyone can learn something from me, all the better.”

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

George Stanchfield works at a shed on a lakeside property in Plympton, putting plantings and flowers in a window box.
George Stanchfield works at a shed on a lakeside property in Plympton, putting plantings and flowers in a window box. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff