Scituate lily garden blooms one day at a time
SCITUATE — Many backyard gardeners grow daylilies. They’re hardy, take care of themselves, and make a flashy show of color when they come into bloom in late June and July.
But since each daylily flower lasts only one day — hence the name — in a few weeks at most your prized daylily patch has exhausted its voice. In Janet and Stephen Tooker's garden in Scituate, however, the music goes on from May to October. That's because the Tookers grow more than 740 varieties of daylily. The scope and size of their plantings are hard to imagine for most gardeners, the number of blossoms uncountable.
Called Collamore Field Gardens after an old name for their area along Tilden Road, the Tookers' array holds special status with the American Hemerocallis Society. Deemed an official "display garden'' by the national daylily organization, it is open to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., this month and the first weekend of August. The garden at 397 Tilden Road will also be open on July 31 for members of the New England Daylily Society, but others are welcome, too.
According to the Hemerocallis Society, the daylily is often regarded as the "perfect perennial" because it requires little care, thrives in various landscapes, has few pest or disease problems, adapts to soil and light conditions, produces blooms in many shapes and colors, and offers varieties that bloom from spring to autumn. While a blossom lasts only a day, each stalk has many buds and each daylily clump may have many stalks, so the flowering stretches out. And it makes new gardeners think they know what they're doing.
Judging from their garden, the Tookers know what they're doing. "I've always been able to make things grow," Stephen Tooker said recently.
The couple's perennial garden is a series of stunning flower beds starting from the daylily display in front of the house, winding along its wraparound porch like a colorfully dressed escort, consuming what had once been strawberry and vegetable beds behind the house, and stretching into a long plain of rank upon rank of daylily plantings, each carefully labeled for the education of the public and the eye of the specialist. The plantings continue behind a barn and into a small wooded area graced with unusual varieties of rhododendron discovered when they cleared away the underbrush, and the largest and strangest jack-in-the-pulpit you're ever likely to see.
Their daylily collection became a display garden three years ago, after the Hemerocallis Society asked them to join its program. The purpose is to "display the very best daylily cultivars to the general public," the society states, and "to educate the visitor about modern daylilies and how they can be used effectively in landscapes."
Keeping up a display garden takes some work. Tooker scrupulously labels the new cultivars he's planted and deadheads his plants — removing the spent blossoms — before visiting days. In mid-July, when the daylilies are really rocking, that can take hours.
"If people enjoy it and it educates them," said Tooker, retired from teaching English at Massasoit Community College, he's glad to do it. "I'm basically a teacher at heart."
The couple, who bought their house in the 1970s, began growing daylilies when a friend asked them to split an order of "50 daylilies for $50" from a nursery in Connecticut. They ended up with 33 plants, and since, as Janet Tooker put it, "Stephen has no trouble getting things to grow," they all came up.
"It was a great surprise to us," Janet said of learning how many varieties hybridists and growers have produced. The world of daylily cultivation opened up to them. People gave them gift certificates to other growers, and visits to these nurseries became their trips to the candy store. Their flower gardens expanded.
"The gardens didn't look anything like they look now," Janet said. "They've evolved."
The couple gave up on the dwarf apple trees in the front garden — "We didn't like spraying them," Janet said — and replaced them with the killer display of daylilies.
"We still walk around there and sit out there and look at it," Janet said. As the season peaks and more varieties start to flower, it's the big picture with its nearly endless variety of color, shape, and pattern in the blossom that attracts the eye, she said.
Stephen, who can recognize and — astonishingly — name all of the garden's daylily varieties, also knows the technical vocabulary of the trade. The flowers not only have petals, he explained, they have sepals (the bud's outer covering), "throats, eyes, watermarks, halos" — terms used to distinguish the appearance of one cultivar's flower from another.
The variety and beauty of the flowers are a magnet for botanical artists.
"We're lucky to have this," said Sara Roche, a botanical artist and teacher from Cohasset who recently led a group of her students on a sketching session in the Tookers' garden.
Roche, founding director of the New England Society of Botanical Artists, teaches botanical art at Wellesley College and at the South Shore Art Center in Cohasset. Some of her students, often artists and designers in their own right, were working on paintings to submit for the art society's certification requirement. They chose among flowers such as Kindly Light, a clear yellow with ruffled petals; Velvet Ice, a purple-white flower with a dark purple "eye'' around its center; Cranberry Cove, an intense red with a green throat (the tube where flowers emerge from the plant's stem); and White Dancer, white with some pink in the sepals.
"This is a beautiful thing to do," said Lianne Gillespie of Pembroke as she worked at capturing a flower's complex layered architecture.
Ellen Duarte was drawing the "common daylily plant," the kind you see growing all over New England and opening their bright orange flowers in midsummer. Often called "ditch lilies," they are among the "roadside attractions" Duarte is painting for her certification group.
Roche, who has worked as a freelance botanical artist and has illustrated both books and periodicals, said you can make money from botanical art, though "it's hard to make a full living as a freelancer.
"You're usually working for a designer," she said. "You fill the space the designer left for you." Showings in exhibitions can also lead to sales of paintings (or prints, cards, and notepaper), and to commissions for a highly aesthetic gift for a special someone.
While the aesthetics of the garden are what it's all about for most visitors this time of year, Stephen Tooker said, "My concern is the aesthetic issue with the cell tower." The Tookers and some of their neighbors are challenging a plan to build a large cellphone tower nearby.
Their garden's other problems are "deer and water," he said — though a rainy season did not appear to be bothering the daylilies.
Janet Tooker mentioned another: "It's Scituate," she said, so visitors may want to consider bug spray.
In the end it's all about the daylily. Scituate artist Madeline Merchant summed up its bittersweet appeal: "It's a single flower, the most beautiful in the garden. But it lasts only a day."