It’s summertime and dinner-plate sized hibiscus blooms take center stage in the front garden of Little Red, a charming Washington Street cottage in which Wellesley College professor Dr. Marilyn Sides has lived since 2003. “It’s one of the oldest houses in town,” she says of the structure, parts of which date to 1755. In an area where antique homes are more likely to be razed than saved, Little Red is something of an anomaly. It probably helps that the home is owned by Wellesley College and kept as faculty housing. It certainly helps that Sides isn’t retiring from academia anytime soon. She likes her job teaching creative writing and literature. She likes her students. And she likes her garden. Life is good.
Teaching keeps her busy, of course, along with her writing. Sides is working on some short stories, and has plans to get back to her book-in-progress. Some of her publications include a novel, The Genius of Affection, and her work has appeared in the 1991 O. Henry Prize Stories collection. Plus she’s always got a pile of reading to plow through. Right now she’s immersed in medieval Zen poetry with the Ikkyū and the Crazy Cloud Anthology, as well as Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, a story about a beekeeper in Ukraine, where a lukewarm war of sporadic violence and constant propaganda has been dragging on for years and threatens to upend his mission of helping his bees collect their pollen in peace.
Still, Sides has always made time for the garden, especially that eye-catching front border. When she moved in, the previous residents had put in a few perennials. Sides took the passing of the trowel seriously and began her decades-long experiment in color and form. “I never plan anything, I just stick stuff in. I call it my Tilly and Salvy’s garden [referring to the nearby Natick grocery store/garden center]. Almost everything is from there. I go into the market, get some milk, and pick up a plant.”
The garden follows the very basics of landscape design. The tall stuff, like variegated red twig dogwood, butterfly bushes, and a rosa rugosa shrub, is in back of the border; followed by medium-sized plants (gladiolas, milkweed, dahlias, hosta); then low-growers and ground covers (thyme, variegated sage, mint). Mind you, this is just a partial list of the dozens of plants that grow here.
Other supposedly bedrock principles like scale and proportion have been tossed out the window. Ever heard the phrase, “go big or go home?” Sides goes big, and she is home, so garden rules don’t apply to her. If a plant thrives under her gardening system of benign neglect, it stays. Stragglers get taken over and pushed out by their more aggressive neighbors. Buh-bye. A huge patch of red bee balm around which an excited hummingbird flits is permitted to expand at will. The most massive Montauk Daisy I’ve ever seen, a reliable late-summer-through-first-frost bloomer, thrives in its full-sun location. Even the indignity of road salt showers kicked up by winter snowplows can’t keep this stalwart down.
As for Little Red, it’s back there somewhere among all this exuberance, reading less like a Wellesley trophy house and more like a humble garden ornament. Looking as carefully clipped and polished as a fresh mani/pedi isn’t Little Red’s vibe.
While Sides is blessed with sunlight, great soil, and space, her curse is the dreaded swallowwort. This invasive may sport shiny green leaves and tiny, sweet-looking purple flowers, but real gardeners aren’t fooled. Swallowwort has a murderous nature and wants to choke everything it can wrap its tendrils around. Worse yet, a long taproot makes swallowwort nearly impossible to eradicate once it gets a stranglehold among the pretties. Sides’ strategy is to engage in hand-to-root combat, stabbing that swallowwort with a weed puller, and hoping she breaks off most of its roots and all of its spirit.
Challenges like swallowwort and Wellesley’s drought-related watering restrictions aside, Sides is ever the gardening optimist, always planning the next project. Her small kitchen garden with its cherry tomatoes, eggplant, basil, tomatillos, and hot peppers is in its second year and doing well. A recent foxglove addition gives the sunny corner a cottage-y feel, and a small fence around the the veggies keeps her dog Bear from digging everything up (but not the bunnies from eating the eggplant). She used to travel far and wide during the summers, but for now prefers to stay closer to home, driving out to Crane Beach in Ipswich weekly to swim in the cold North Shore waters.
If you get the chance, walk by Little Red and check out the hibiscus. “People, when they see them, just lose their minds,” Sides says.
More garden writing
- An hour in my Wellesley garden—Rack and Ruin Garden still racked, ruined
- An hour in my Wellesley garden—Rack and Ruin Garden gone, but not forgotten
- An hour in my Wellesley garden—praying mantis at work