A Potter's Garden
by Mary Jasch
Round fenced-in garden from days of old – monkshood, lily-of-the-valley, peony, Japanese anemone, zinnia, sunflower, morning glory, clematis on tutuer and dahlias, dahlias everywhere. Wade in, surf-like, with flowers floating on crests of foliage waves.
They say that just a small percentage of artists have a good business sense, and Connecticut-based potter/gardener Frances Palmer is one of them. Just as she designs, throws, fires and bakes exquisite ceramics, porcelains and terra cotta, she also designs, plants, enjoys, cares for and uses a 52-foot diameter flower garden.
The flowers, mostly dahlias, are tools for inspiration and for marketing her handmade dishware and vases and American-made, factory-made Pearl CollectionTM tableware.
It all began 25 years ago when art historian/curator Palmer started gardening and coincidentally decided to work and be a stay-at-home mom at the same time. She opened a studio and began the arduous tasks of the self-employed artist. The dahlias came seven years later when she moved to an 1850s house in Litchfield County and discovered a circular garden with wedge-shaped beds.
Palmer enclosed the garden to keep out the voles, deer and rabbits and reconstructed the beds as rectangles. She planted and erected structures to support tall flowers, especially the couple hundred dahlias that live there.
“I never cease to be amazed about the way they unfold. Each one is extraordinary,” she says. “They’re just so happy and they bloom so profusely in the fall. There are hundreds of different kinds with different shapes and colors and they just keep coming. I’m always amazed at their physical construction.”
Palmer uses the flowers to document her work and for marketing her pots on her website and elsewhere. “I use it as a cutting garden to (have flowers that) work with my pots.” And sometimes she grows certain plants to accommodate the shapes of the pots she is making.
“I like the garden because it’s not a fancy garden. I do it myself. I love being in that garden. A lot of the flowers in there are volunteers: sunflowers, nicotiana, love-lies-bleeding, poppies… There are structures that I put in but at a certain point I let it be. It’s a free-for-all.”
Daughter Daphne says, “My mom embraces the random.”
“I enjoy the process of digging them up in fall. All season you put your heart and soul into the garden. In the fall, you dig up the tuber and tag it and put it in a box. Then it’s spring again and it’s like seeing your old friend. They have a personality to me. They’re not just inanimate objects.”
Palmer’s creativity doesn’t stop with pottery, flowers and ideas. Visit the vegetable garden inside the 1930s tennis court, quite instructional for the average veggie grower.
There, more sunflowers, amaranth and cleome grow in the blacktop’s cracks, just where Palmer planted the seeds, while tomatoes, cukes, asparagus, beans…and millet grow in tall raised beds with fluffy soil. It’s all fun but may seem a little of “the have and have nots.” But to be fair, she has not yet figured out a watering system and so all plants receive the same watering schedule – rain.
Even more interesting, planters made of chicken wire lined with newspaper and filled with soil are placed on the blacktop and grow butternut squash, pumpkins and potatoes. “I wanted the garden to have some humor,” she says.
Palmer has already reaped a bounty from her first-season Mad Max veggie garden and she’s looking forward to more. “A friend showed up with the most gorgeous clean bamboo poles. We can have a bamboo tower for pole beans!”
Art in life. Life in art. “I’ve always made art and made things with my hands. I love to garden and cook. Ceramics united the art, the garden and the food.”
Daphne says: “When you sit down at her table…she’s made everything on it.” Now that’s amazing!
Palmer’s Important Tips about Growing Dahlias
1. If you’re not growing dahlias because you have to dig them up, leave them in the ground and buy new ones each year.
2. When you plant in spring, set up a support structure so that as the dahlia grows it’s well-supported.
3. Fertilize with bone meal.
4. I usually pinch out the center of the first bud to encourage the plant to branch.
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published August 22, 2012