Garden Club of Darien gifts plantings to Mather Homestead

Lesley Sandison, front, left, Garden Club of Darien, Kristy Barclay, Debbie Colon, Elaine Pizzarelli, Laura Petitt and Susan Nowak; Kathy Armstrong, back, left, Susan Doelp, Kathy Lozier, Lee Gowen, Margot Congdon, Amy Harned, Margaret Arrix, Sue Hayes; Betsy Becker and Tracy Drippé, GCD 2020-21 co-presidents

Lesley Sandison, front, left, Garden Club of Darien, Kristy Barclay, Debbie Colon, Elaine Pizzarelli, Laura Petitt and Susan Nowak; Kathy Armstrong, back, left, Susan Doelp, Kathy Lozier, Lee Gowen, Margot Congdon, Amy Harned, Margaret Arrix, Sue Hayes; Betsy Becker and Tracy Drippé, GCD 2020-21 co-presidents

Contributed /

DARIEN — A committee of twelve women from the Garden Club of Darien devoted time and attention recently to create a foundation garden that surrounds the newly-built Elizabeth W. Chilton Educational Center at Darien’s Mather Homestead, at 19 Stephen Mather Road. The new “barn,” completed in 2020 by the Mather Homestead Foundation, has enabled the homestead to expand programming to include scholar’s lectures, art exhibits, concerts, films and yoga classes.

During the 2020 summer, the Garden Club’s group led by committee chairman, Susan Doelp and assistant, Lesley Sandison, researched the best types of planting materials for the optimal development of this 350 sq. ft. garden.

Part of the project included conducting sun and shade studies and soil testing. The recommended selections focused on maximizing both drought and deer resistance, and the plants represent a variety of textures, colors and bloom times which will coordinate with the center’s red barn siding.

“The next stage of the project will be to educate adult and youth visitors by labeling the ‘pollinator friendly’ plant varieties that will attract birds, bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. In addition, the installation of a rain barrel this spring will aid in plant watering and water conservation at this historic site,” Doelp said.

As a member of the Garden Club of America, GCD members devote their energies and interests to an array of community projects to promote and include topics of horticulture, environmental protection and conservation. Funds to upgrade local gardens were raised through Persephone, a flower show organized by the GCD in 2018.

Built in 1778 by Deacon Joseph Mather and owned continuously through seven generations, the property was recently donated by the McPherson family descendants. “One of the finest examples of 18th century architecture, the Mather Homestead has retained its character for nearly 250 years. It is open for public education around 18th century American history, including Revolutionary War times, and the legacy of Stephen Tyng Mather (1867-1930), a renowned conservationist who founded the National Park Service,” said interim executive director Heather Raker.

“How exciting to have this new barn for the future, which provides endless possibilities with unfolding potential for art, scholars’ lectures, events, and exhibits. This will expand educational programming about this period for both adults and children,” Raker said.

Raker said the integrity of the largely-untouched original furniture remains intact, but is brought to current living standards.

“We educate about impacts of the revolutionary war, telling stories about this ‘safe house,’ located far from the CT coastline. In 1778, the house was raided, yet the family hid valuable silver strapped to a highboy cabinet,” Raker said.

The barn and home are open to the public for tours by appointment.

Stephen Mather was the founder of the National Parks Service, an important conservation organization. He found that the outdoors offered both solace and therapeutic benefits which created his initial interest and involvement in the parks.

By August 1916, the Act to Establish the National Park Service was created by the Department of Interior which oversaw 14 national parks, 21 national monuments, and the Hot Springs and Casa Grande Ruin Reservations, Raker said.

“However, there was no unified leadership or organization to operate them which meant that parks and monuments were vulnerable to competing interests,” Raker said.

With encouragement from future directors Stephen T. Mather and Horace Albright, the National Geographic Society, journalists, railroad interests and others, Congress passed what is often known as “The Organic Act,” which established the National Park Service and placed all existing parks under its management, Raker said.

Mather Homestead board member and gardener Andrea Huntington said plantings were “a great gift to the Homestead.”

“Our plans may involve allowing the fields to contain more native wildflowers, and transforming the patio’s colonial herb garden near the original well. We want to preserve the native plantings, such as Mountain Laurel, and Ilex, yet update the space to add color with perennials,” Huntington said.

“An overall vision may involve a multi-year restoration of the sunken garden, with hopes of planting native plants such as Hyssop, Salvia, Butterfly Bush and Echinacea, which also can help attract pollinators,” she said.

Margot Congdon, a Mather board member and GCD committee member said the homestead has also launched an initiative to bring honey bee hives to the grounds, and will continue to provide pollinators and native plants to support them.

Planting selections include:

— Pennisetum Piglet grass, attracts birds

— Viburnum carlesii “Korean Spice Viburnum,” attracts birds

— Clethra hummingbird - attracts bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Dicentra exima “Fringed Bleeding Heart”- attracts hummingbirds Andromeda Pierus japonica compacta - attracts bees

— Spirea Tor - attracts butterflies

— Ilex glabra Gem box “Inkberry Holly”- attracts pollinators