Connected \\ May 18, 2020

The constant gardener

Robin Pydynkowski stands by an oversized printer as it hums and whirls and churns out a 36-by-48-inch plot map of PEM’s Ropes Mansion garden. From an aerial view, the garden looks as mesmerizing as a mandala. Paths that originate from a central hub radiate outward along compass points, running north, south, east and west. Circular bands of garden beds, 42 in total, bloom outward in increasing size.

Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

A woman wearing glasses holds up two large green spear shaped leafed plants in pots.

Robin on plant-planning duty. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

When it’s wintertime outside and plants are dormant, inside the museum’s head gardener is busy at work. Before her lay stacks of gardening books and seed catalogs, many overflowing with dozens of post-it note tabs. “Each year we tinker with the garden design just a bit,” says Pydynkowski. Some plants come off the list and others jump on. What new species might greet you in the garden this year? Amaranth and quinoa – both of which you may know as healthy grains, also produce attractive flowers that will add height, texture and pops of color.

Circular paths garden plan and books laid on a surface

Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

This year, during the COVID-19 health crisis, planning the garden has gone a little differently. Families may join Pydynkowski for PEM’s Little Green Thumbs, a unique hands-on gardening experience. With over an acre of land for safe social distancing, the Ropes Mansion Garden provides an opportunity to connect with nature, learn about planting and help beautify one of Salem’s historic outdoor spots. Participating families will be assigned a section of an annual bed to plant with the freedom to create their own design, all while learning the basics of gardening.

Pydynkowski’s aim is to create a garden that is “bright and light, filled with jewel tones and pastels” and is equally appealing to butterflies as it is to visitors. Beyond aesthetics, the garden also needs to function well in New England’s climatic extremes.

Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

The original landscape design, created in the Colonial Revival style by John Robinson in 1912, calls for nearly 5,000 annual flowers to be planted each year. Pydynkowski became PEM’s head gardener in 2019 and has overseen the care and maintenance of the garden since 2008. She has developed a careful system for planning out the flower beds. To ensure that species are not repeated and that there’s a pleasing flow and balance to the design, she marks index cards with plant species names, like Cambridge Blue Salvia — “a great vertical” — and arranges them again and again until a plan clicks into place.

Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

Free and open to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year, the garden welcomes thousands of visitors each year. The garden is a point of pride for many in the community and a delightful surprise to visitors passing through. Locally, the garden paths serve as a convenient cut-through between Federal and Essex Streets in Salem’s McIntire Historic District. On any given day, you’ll see dog walkers, people enjoying books from the garden’s Little Free Library and children enthusiastically feeding fish in the koi pond.

Jim McAllister, a local historian who for years has led walking tours of Salem notes,

Despite being just a few yards from one of the busiest streets and intersections in Salem, it's a very quiet place. It's an urban oasis where you can sit on a bench and soak up the sun, visit with friends and enjoy the stunning flowers in bloom. And you don’t have to weed or water.

Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

PEM’s Little Green Thumbs family planting project takes place Tuesday–Friday, May 21–June 19, 10 am–noon and 1–3 pm (weather permitting). To ensure safe distancing, each two-hour planting session is limited to two families (with a maximum of four individuals per group) and face masks are required. No experience or tools are necessary, just bring a willingness to dig in and get your hands dirty. Everyone is welcome back this summer to visit the garden to see and savor the flowers of their labors.

In this unique outdoor classroom experience, students will:

  • Use their senses to explore and investigate the world around them.
  • Learn about parts of plants and their functions: roots, seeds, leaves, stems and flowers.
  • Discover tips for proper spacing and how to “place and face” the plants for the best presentation as to how they will be viewed.

Location: Ropes Mansion Garden, 318 Essex St., Salem
Free for all; Recommended for ages 5 and up
Limited number of spaces available
To register or if you have questions, please email or call 978-238-0410.

The PEM 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.

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