Connected \\ June 5, 2020

Cultivating community

Keeping Salem green boosts public health, bringing signs of life and optimism. And while the museum has kept up inspiration with getting creative at home through art-inspired activities, it felt only natural to bring that same creativity outside. PEM recently held its first non-virtual, community-driven program since Covid-19 shuttered Salem.

A garden with stone pathe, a bench and a federal period brick house in the background.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Our free Family Planting Project (known as “Little Green Thumbs”) gave local families the opportunity to get outside and get their hands dirty during two-hour gardening sessions in the historic Ropes Mansion Garden. Over the course of a month, wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing, 34 families were assigned a patch in the Colonial Revival-style garden with the freedom to create their own design — aided by PEM’s intrepid Head Gardener Robin Pydynkowski, along with PEM staff and volunteers.

Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

Spaced out over more than an acre of land, the groups learned tricks of the trade as they planted Rockin’ Blue Suede Shoes and Superbells Doublette Love Swept.

“Someone who named these flowers had to work for Hallmark at some point,” says Pydynkowski.

Salem resident Xia He Lam and her 9-year-old son Tian were quick to sign up. Both love being active in our community and are avid PEM supporters — often visiting to take in the majesty of Yin Yu Tang. “We could not pass up the chance to get out of the house and contribute to this,” says Xia. “We love PEM.” And while homeschool has been going well enough, it was a nice reprieve to have something close to a museum experience. As Xia says, “Tian wanted it to be just us.”

A young boy and two women setting plants into a garden.

Tian planting with mom Xia and PEM Head Gardener Robin Pydynkowski. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Along with local families, it’s been fantastic to see our PEM staff family turn out for the program. Brittany Minton, head registrar at PEM, with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, Ellie, could not help but join in on the fun — taking to their plot with verve. “I am the total opposite of a green thumb,” says Minton, to which Pydynkowski quickly quips, “Not today you’re not.”

A young girl wearing yellow gloves holds up a blue flowering plant in a white pot

Ellie in action. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Ellie, who likes playing in dirt, had an impressive vocabulary as she walked me through her process. “I am going to put it in the hole and push around the dirt ... tuck it in,” she says.

For Pydynkowski, seeing staff and community members pitch in makes the whole endeavor worth it. “This almost didn’t happen,” she says, looking around at the gardening underway. The Covid-19 shutdown left a void in extra hands to support all of the planting needed to bring the garden to life. “I am beyond grateful to be working every day. Nature has been a savior. However, it has been so much better having people present,” says Pydynkowski. “Every person that has lent a hand, from PEM staff to those who are taking part in the program, have been absolutely spectacular.”

A bright pink lily flower blooming among green lilypads on a pool od dark water

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

It has meant a lot to the local community,” says Security Supervisor Jon Spina, who kept a watchful eye over the program. “It might sound cheesy, but you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. This opportunity has given a bit of that missing something back.

For Minton and her cultivation crew, the activity provided a much needed outing. “It is not easy figuring out how to keep a 4 year old’s attention span hour after hour,” says Minton. “It’s invaluable to get outside and do something in a yard that is not our yard... or a screen-based one for that matter.”

Head Gardener Robin Pydynkowski smiling, looking at viewer through tall green plant leaves

Head Gardener Robin Pydynkowski. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

If you didn’t get the chance to participate at Ropes, Pydynkowski has provided her top five tips and tricks — for novices and planting-pros alike — that will keep us grounded (literally) in our real outdoor spaces.

#1. Step one of starting your own garden is location, location location! You want full sun – though, a little light shade for your lettuce is not a bad thing – and you want it fairly level. Check out the soil by sending a sample to the UMass Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory, so you know what you have and what you need.

Attributed to John Robinson (designer), Garden Plan of the Ropes Mansion, undated. Pencil and paper. Trustees of the Ropes Memorial Records. MSS 191. Peabody Essex Museum.

Attributed to John Robinson (designer), Garden Plan of the Ropes Mansion, undated. Pencil and paper. Trustees of the Ropes Memorial Records. MSS 191. Peabody Essex Museum.

Three pink zinnia flowers amongst deep greenery

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

#2. If you are like Minton or myself, and are curious about what plants are easiest to care for and keep alive, Pydynkowski says, “There are so many! Try planting vegetables such as lettuce, beans, spinach, potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes and peppers. For flowers, try nasturtiums, zinnias, lantana, salvia, all kinds of lilies, marigolds or sunflowers. For herbs, remember they prefer lean, not rich, well-draining soils — don’t kill them with kindness — this includes lavender.” Plants that don’t have to be deadheaded are also big on Pydynkowski’s “hip rating.”

#3. Rabbits making a meal of your mellons? Have no fear! There are organic methods to deter critters. “If your plants are ornamental, such as flowers and nonedibles, Bobbex is a great organic spray that absorbs into the plant and doesn’t wash off,” notes Pydynkowski. “For vegetables, fencing is your best bet. Extend part of the fence underground about six inches for best results. If you choose to use cayenne powder or other similar treatments, remember to reapply it to your plants after each rain and be very careful of the wind. I once drove home like a one-eyed pirate after applying cayenne powder to a client’s tulips ... not a good look!”

“View of the Garden at the Ropes Mansion” photographed 1915. Autochrome. Ropes Mansion Collection. Peabody Essex Museum.

“View of the Garden at the Ropes Mansion” photographed 1915. Autochrome. Ropes Mansion Collection. Peabody Essex Museum.

#4. The unpredictable New England weather can leave grass looking … not-so-green. When it comes to grass seed that does best in our region, Pydynkowski usually uses Penn or Corliss Gold. “I prefer any good sun/shade mix that doesn’t have too much Kentucky Blue in it — as it gets sleepy in the high summer,” she adds. “Each mix should be listed on its label — be generous with it! It’s important to apply grass starter fertilizer when starting to seed, and remember to reapply it once the grass begins growing! Baby grass absorbs a lot of water and you want to make sure to water them well at first. After that point, you can very lightly water two or three times a day. The same watering schedule applies when applying sod. Using timers and sprinklers can help the process. This procedure is necessary for two to three weeks, weather dependent, and is the best method to minimize weeds.”

A young girl uses a hose to water the pnewly planted plants while her mom watches.

“Give those plants a good drink.” Ellie and mom Brittany making sure the flowers don’t go thirsty. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

A young squatting boy plants pink flowers in the dirt.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

#5. For our full-fledged flower people, who are looking for suggestions on perennials to plant in shady areas (that are not hostas), Pydynkowski has an answer: “ Campanula, chelone, dicentra, helleborus, woodland phlox, Japanese wind anemone, aruncus, epimedium,astilbes, filipendula, geranium (‘Azure Rush’ is a good one), platycodon — so many. Some peonies, tree peonies and daylilies appreciate a little shade. Actea is fabulous and has many heights and foliages. Primula will work if you have a proper site to plant it. I mostly steer clear of anything in the aster family as they don’t play well with others. Blueberries, high bush or low, are not only yummy, but also a great fall color for a blast in the shade.”

The Ropes Mansion Garden is open every day, year-round, from dawn to dusk — with new life thanks to our Green Thumb families. Visit throughout the summer, with masks and social distancing, to see their hard work in its full glory.

Stay well. Stay inspired. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

The museum staff wishes everyone health, safety and calm during the COVID-19 shutdown. Museums provide light and inspiration during challenging times. We will be creative in maintaining PEM’s relationship with you in this time of crisis. We look forward to welcoming you back to the museum when the public health crisis has subsided. For more information and updates, please visit and keep in touch through our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Facebook Twitter Email
Related \\ Stories You’ll Love
Hollowed tree trunk, pigments and iron of a decorated beehive from the 1800s.
Finding home