Back To The Garden: Gaye Donofrio and her Perennial Gardens

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Text & Photographs |  Dorothy Hartz

In Bethel Township, a lovely, sequestered sampler of Eden awaits the visitor after a surprisingly short drive off of Route 17B. Long the Hendricks’ family dairy farm, and briefly a parking lot for the 1969 Woodstock festival under the ownership of Max Yasgur, the property today is a gracious testament to the gardening alchemy of Gaye Donofrio. Gaye and husband Robert acquired the property in 1975, moved into the farmhouse that has stood at the end of a long tree-lined drive since 1885, and have tended children, grandchildren, horses, assorted stray cats and three acres of gardens—beautiful gardens—over the past 33 years.

When Gaye first got her hands dirty in pursuit of her landscaping visions, she had 30 acres to select from, but only a few spruces to work with. She established some perennial beds, and then planted the trees which today anchor islands and groves and arbors in a dreamlike landscape, leading the visitor through and around various nooks and habitats that showcase both native vegetation, gently groomed, and specimen plantings. The effect is an ever changing palette as the seasons spin along. “ I don’t like to take things out. If something’s working, it doesn’t feel right to remove it,” says Gaye of her process.

A ramble from any direction seems to lead to an alle´ of Bradford pear trees, lovely as brides in early spring, which connects towering evergreen shelters over beds, benches and rustic pools to a more formal patio with an imposing planted urn, in turn an accent against background layers of pond and field, woods and hills. The views can be enjoyed from a verdant paddock porch, comfortably appointed.

Whimsical, homey touches are meant to be appreciated by the resident fauna as much as by gardening aficionados. A variety of birdfeeders ornaments a wide wisteria arbor built off the kitchen window, and gourd birdhouses hang unexpectedly, low in shady spots, while large wooden bird condos, pitched at rakish angles, mark sunny borders. Gaye’s solicitous affection for her private eco-system prompts her to remove new-hatched tadpoles from small pools to a pond until they are large enough to escape the pools’ filters on their own. The Donofrios excavated the pond, now home to schools of goldfish and koi, many of which eat out of Gaye’s hand. The site, in its languid perfection during a warm June photo shoot, is unimaginable without the waterscape.

Gaye comes from a long line of gardeners, and her love of her calling is apparent in her enthusiasm, as her sense of stewardship is in her methods. She has always gardened organically, and attributes her success—and the absence of swarming pests, at a time when the region is plagued with gypsy moths and flies—to the natural balance her methods have produced in her environment over time. She also believes in the therapeutic benefits of working in the earth. Her belief was recently validated by hard science. It seems a particular bacteria in the soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, given contact with a human, will release seratonin in the brain, leading to a sense of relaxation and satisfaction—the  same sense, Gaye surmises, already known to gardeners everywhere.

A lifetime of dirt therapy has given Gaye an exceptionally high level of energy, as well as some clear favorites for her personal and professional planting pleasure. Her choices for never-fail bedding plants are catmint (“ ever bloomy, spilly”) and iris, both the Japanese and Siberian varieties. Both are deer proof, as is the wild Dame’s rocket, commonly misidentified as wild phlox, which Gaye has introduced here, there and most everywhere to supplement her borders. Her favorite flower palette is purple and yellow—“a knockout”—and her favorite rose, the deep pink, ever-blooming single, William Baffin. Offering a hint, she reveals, “I feed banana peels to the roses–they love the potassium.”

Other gardener’s pets singled out for special praise include red jade crabapple, kolkwitzia, or beauty bush, shasta viburnum and mandarin honeysuckle. Gaye’s knowledge of species and their variations is dazzling as she introduces the visitor to any and all of her plantings–and a few accidentals—with a blend of correct nomenclature, loving anecdote and practical advice.

Transplants themselves, the Donofrios first discovered Sullivan County while visiting Monticello Raceway, where Robert had frequent business. Moving from Long Island’s North Shore, they lived as snowbirds between Bethel and Florida until their two children were of school age, when they were enrolled in the Homestead School. The family settled into country life here, raising horses for many years on their rolling fields, with Gaye, an accomplished craftswoman, also busy teaching. Today, one pet horse remains, and evidence of Gaye’s artistry is everywhere, in and out of the gardens. Even though the children are grown, the tree house and other outdoor play areas still entertain grandchildren for three seasons of the year. As for winter, Gaye and Robert have resumed travel to Florida.

A fabulous feature of the Donofrio yard is a 12-year-old grape arbor sheltering an alfresco dining spot complete with rustic candelabra. The neighboring tomato patches further a fantasy of Tuscany-in-Bethel. Three times was a charm for the leafy retreat, supplanting as it does two earlier versions. After hearing of the attendant frustrations in coaxing it to its present glory, I sat sipping seltzer, basking quite literally in their shared success, and I asked the Donofrios what they wanted people to know from reading about their experience of creating an environmentally friendly country estate.  Robert didn’t hesitate to respond, only half-jesting, “How hard I worked all these years.” Gaye was characteristically enthusiastic by advising, “If anyone has the slightest inclination to try gardening, they should go ahead. Learn by doing – make mistakes.”

Gaye estimates that she currently spends about ten hours a week maintaining her home gardens. Having established, if not completed, her personal Eden (all gardeners know that a garden is never finished), she now shares her knowledge and passion with the public in Perennial Gardens, “a unique gardening design company, specializing in creating beautiful landscapes with flowers, ornamental grasses, flowering trees and shrubs.” Gaye employs and works along with an installation crew, mostly at new residences such as the several at The Chapin Estates graced by her sensibilities. Perennial Gardens can be reached at http://www.845/583-5760.








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