Local gardening couple showcased

The flagstone patio and tidy cottage gardens are accustomed to the orange glow of the outdoor fireplace or the sun setting behind the mountains, but now the modest gardens in the middle of Manchester Center are basking in the limelight of a national magazine.

The venerable bimonthly Organic Gardening has been around for 70 years, and boasts a readership of 270,000. In the April/May issue, the property of Alan and Nancy Benoit is featured in a lavish eight-page spread, replete with opulent photographs, titled Sticks and Stones: Salvaged materials find a new home in a charming Vermont garden.

It's true - they're both scavengers and recyclers; they renew, refurbish, re-use, re-purpose, re-vision. Alan is an architect (Sustainable Design of Vermont), specializing in green, energy-efficient building design and natural landscaping. He is also a horticulturist, sculptor, naturalist, photographer. Nancy's design work includes graphic arts and unique handcrafted shoes inspired by beautiful materials. The pair built the studio that houses her shoemaking business, Sole of Vermont, using passive solar design and recycled materials, and they've made it into a little jewel of a place. Given the full complement of Nancy's and Alan's various skills and talents, the article in Organic Gardening could have focused on any number of horticultural angles: integration of a wide variety of nuts, berries, fruits, flowers, herbs in a small space; introducing garden elements with year-round interest, seasonal options to prolong a short growing season; what to do with a bountiful harvest, etc.

Indeed, the process took several months from initial contact to the printed page.

"The photographer came here a few months before the writer, so he had to take photos of everything, since he didn't know what the angle was going to be," Nancy explains.

"He'd call and ask what was blooming, and we'd give him updates," Alan recalls. "I'd refer to my garden journal, based on eleven years of history, but nothing applied." Last March, most of us will remember, globally warm temperatures in the low 80s kick-started premature blooming. Another heat wave struck right before the photographer arrived in June, so the Benoits were madly weeding in the heat and watering heavily in order to keep the gardens looking healthy and fresh.

Most of the photos were taken just after dawn to get the 'magic light.' Later, the magazine's writer spent several days with the couple. Anyone in Alan and Nancy's orbit cannot help but get caught up in the symbiotic energy generated by these two extraordinary people. (They played together in band when they were kids in fourth grade started dating when they were 15, and have been married for 23 years.) Their enthusiasm for working diligently on shared projects and at their chosen professions is testament to what a profound partnership and high aspirations can achieve. But they are not a closed circuit, by any means - they are constantly educating themselves.

Even as they share the fruits of their experience (and their trees!) with friends and clients, they also love to share their experience and expertise with the community. The two recently produced a local Green Expo, and Alan has been hosting or presenting talks on Sustainable Living at the Northshire Bookstore for four years, on topics ranging from pruning fruit trees to installing solar hot water systems.

Nancy shows me progress on the barn, where the plan is to host intimate dinner parties. I comment on an attractive mirror. "Oh, somebody threw that out! The top bit was broken," she says, indicating the top of the ornamental frame, "so I broke part of it off, made it symmetrical, and painted it white " (And it is lovely.)

I remark on the set of dappled, golden lights hanging from the reclaimed tin ceiling in the barn. "Alan and I blew that glass a few years ago. We didn't have a purpose for them then, but we wrapped them up in newspaper and put them away ." (And they are just right.)

The pair thrives on hard work, but their lives are infused with a sense of fun. One winter they built 100 little snowmen in "downtown" Manchester Center, posing them on doorsteps, window boxes, fire hydrants, railings, just for kicks. Another time, under cover of darkness in a field by their house, they made a giant Loch Ness-like dragon using mounds of construction dirt. They chuckle as they remember the passers-by doing double-takes. Last summer Alan mentioned that he wished he had a picture of a lacewing for that night's presentation on beneficial garden insects. Nancy urged, "Try to get one." Alan steps outside. He holds out his left hand; what lands on it but a lacewing. He snaps a picture of the delicate green insect with his right, and within the hour, the audience sees it up on the screen.

The Benoits have a certain magic, and it's our good fortune that they're here, in our own back yard.

To read the Organic Gardening article and to see what else they're up to, visit their websites: www.SustainableDesignOfVT.com and www.SoleOfVermont.com.


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