Creating Eden

When Lillian Stokes chooses a plant for the extensive gardens at her home in Hancock, there is one thing she always considers: Will the birds like it?

The goal, she says, is to create an outside world filled with both sound and color: “Gardens and birds — those are our two passions.”

She and her husband Don, who are known nationally as the “First Family of Birding,” have 45 acres of land to accommodate their passions. Bobolink Farm, as it is dubbed, overlooks Powdermill Pond with a view of Crotched Mountain beyond.

The Stokes have meadows and hayfields for their birds to nest, but closer to the house there is a variety of gardens — formal and not — designed to please the eye and the birds.

“As you come up our driveway, there is a row of small trees, amelanchier or ‘Autumn Brilliance,’ that produce beautiful spring blossoms and berries in the summer,” Lillian says. “They attract cedar waxwings and robins. They turn a beautiful color in the fall, so they’re a three-season plant.”

The Stokes worked with renowned garden designer Gordon Hayward to create a circular water garden as well as intimate formal gardens framed by rock walls.

“We were lucky that the house already had wonderful rock walls, which were just begging to have a garden,” Lillian says.

The rock walls provide a backdrop for brightly colored delphinium and other perennials. Many varieties of roses are planted along the walls as well. They produce rose hips, which the birds eat in the fall. She also uses plants that “climb and tumble over the walls,” like trumpet honeysuckle and clematis.

The circular water garden is anchored by an antique lead cistern that holds a fountain. “It makes a bubbling background sound,” Lillian says, “which is wonderful for attracting birds. They associate the sounds with stream sounds. They land on the edge to drink, but it’s too deep for them to bathe.” Not to worry, there are lots of birdbaths around.

Hummingbirds are a Stokes favorite. They’re attracted by the large red trumpet honeysuckle vines, as well as the salvia “Lady in Red,” perennial monarda “Cambridge Scarlet” and red bee baum. Purple coneflowers and coreopsis draw the butterflies, another Stokes favorite, as do butterfly bushes.

Lillian, who says she’s been gardening as long as she’s been birding, discovered what to plant where from “trial and error” over the years. One thing she learned well was how to provide color throughout the season. “It’s a wonderful challenge to have a variety of plant material that goes from early in the season to mid-season and then augment them with late-blooming plants.”

She likes “sturdy” annuals that hold up in the heat and rain. Verbena, especially verbena bonariensis, is always part of the mix. Asters are, too. “They really extend the season and butterflies love them,” she says.

The Stokes use no pesticides on their garden. “If you do,” Lillian says, “you run the risk of harming the birds and butterflies.” She advises “low intervention,” using lots of compost and organic fertilizers.

When possible, she adds, use leaf mulch, which you get from collecting fall leaves and letting them decompose. Wood chips and bark mulch work well, too. “Mulch keeps down the weeds and keeps you from having to water a whole lot.” An inch or two should be applied when green shoots are just peeking out.

Don’t worry too much about insects, she says, because insects attract birds. And definitely don’t spray to kill them. “One of the problems is that many people get upset and spray, and the spray ultimately ends up hurting the birds and butterflies.” To combat Japanese beetles, she suggests picking them off and putting them in soapy water.

Gardens are a lot of work, but for the Stokes well worth it. Lillian says she gets great pleasure taking a morning cup of coffee to her Adirondack chair in the gardens and enjoying the sights and sounds around her.

“By having gardens and birds, you have the best of both worlds. You truly can create your own little Eden.” NH