Peter Schoenberger of Hadley enjoys sharing his passion for plants


For the Gazette

Published: 07-06-2017 6:55 PM

How does a gardener celebrate the first day of summer? The June solstice was traditionally a time for farmers to mark their calendars for dates to plant and harvest crops. For Peter Schoenberger, the newest member of the Garden Club of Amherst, it’s a time to reflect on his family ties to gardening and reconnect with the Amherst gardening community. On the longest day of the year, he invited fellow club members to tour his half-acre garden in Hadley and to share his philosophy of gardening.

Schoenberger, who works in health care marketing, began work on his garden 32 years ago when he and his wife, Karen, an assistant dean at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, bought their house in Hadley. He said they didn’t have a big budget, but they wanted to find a house on a site with some character.

“There are so many houses that are just surrounded with grass and no landscaping. I wonder what those people do with all their free time. Finally I looked at a house that had a grove of wild cherry trees in the backyard. I called my wife and said, ‘I think I’ve found what we’re looking for.’ ”


The cherry trees have matured and serve as a focal point around which he has created a pleasantly meandering perennial garden. “I want a cottage-style garden,” said Schoenberger. “Something that doesn’t look too tended.”

Three of the largest cherry trees support a rustic treehouse he built for his son, William, now 18, when he was 6 years old. “He gave it the name ‘Star Burner Central,’ ” said Schoenberger, pointing to the sign over the door. He explained that the treehouse was originally reached by a ladder leading to a trap door, but that arrangement proved cumbersome and somewhat dangerous.

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One day, he recalled, he was fishing on the Connecticut River and saw a section of wooden stairway floating in the water. He brought it home and built a stairway for the treehouse, incorporating the piece he’d retrieved from the river. Visitors from the garden club climbed the stairs and enjoyed the bird’s-eye view of the garden from the wide, railed balcony.

Schoenberger said he inherited his love for gardening from his mother and grandmother, both of whom belonged to garden clubs. “I grew up with gardening,” he said. “It’s what you do so it feels normal to keep doing it.”

His mother’s family lived in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

“My maternal grandmother was very active with Chicago area garden clubs in the ’40s and ’50s, when they were all women and met for tea in fancy dresses with hats and white gloves. Things have changed a lot since then.”

Schoenberger’s family moved to Amherst when he was 7. His mother joined the Garden Club of Amherst, and from an early age he helped her with garden chores like hauling water and loads of manure. “Mom got me interested in gardening by showing me that it isn’t rocket science, and there really are no rules: every gardener gets to decide what their personal vision is. For some people it’s formal rose beds and Greek statues while for others it’s garden gnomes and bathtub Madonnas.”

In the 1970s, his parents bought a wooded, 4-acre lot on Shutesbury Road in North Amherst where they built a house, designed by his mother. With his help, she created an extensive woodland garden.

After Schoenberger’s parents divorced in the mid-1980s, his mother moved to Santa Fe. “Before she left, we moved a few select plants and shrubs, including rhododendrons and hostas, that had special meaning, to my garden in Hadley,” he said. “It was nice for her to know that her plants were going to good homes. And it was nice for me to have her plants.”

Schoenberger also has lilacs from his sister’s garden in Glens Falls, New York. She died of cancer nine years ago. “Every time I look at certain plants, I’m reminded of who they came from,” he said.

Labor of love

He said he finds gardening deeply satisfying. “Some people complain that they have to mow the lawn, or help their spouse in the garden, but I love pruning and digging, doing that stuff. I enjoy the process. I enjoy the plants.”

The central perennial bed is home to hellebores, dicentra, perennial yellow foxglove, salvia, phlox, heuchera and primroses. There are also lupines that he grew from seeds he found in his mother’s garage after she died. Daylilies around the edge of the garden are all from her garden. “She complained that things grew better in my garden than in hers because of our Hadley soil.”

Two years ago he planted a small gingko tree he purchased from the Garden Club of Amherst’s annual plant sale. Its unusual fan-shaped foliage adds an interesting touch to the garden. Near the front of the bed is a simple stone birdbath and a metal armillary sphere, a type of sundial, that had been in his mother’s garden.

The sunniest part of his garden is reserved for vegetables, including several intriguing heirloom tomatoes. “I drove all the way to Coventry, Connecticut, for the Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye,” he said. He also grows blackberries, raspberries and blueberries as well as peaches and pears. He said he gave up on strawberries and sweet corn. “They are too time-consuming to grow and there is so much wonderful produce available for sale,” he explained.

Persistance pays

His philosophy of gardening is simple. “I don’t plan much. I don’t make drawings. I am always moving things around. If it works I leave it. If it doesn’t, I move it. I wait and see how things do. After many years of my wife telling me to put shorter plants in front and taller ones in back, I’ve finally figured that out,” he said, laughing.

He likes to encourage would-be gardeners who say they don’t have the knack. “Some people say they have a black thumb and can’t make anything grow. But I tell them, ‘Don’t just buy one of something. Buy three. See what grows where. You just have to keep doing it.’” He added, “All gardeners kill plants. It takes working in a garden for years to learn about its microclimates, like where sun reflects off the siding on the south side of the house, or where the north side of the house casts deep shade.”

He noted that gardening requires patience. “People see a picture in a catalog and they say, ‘I want that.” But the picture shows $1,000 worth of plants that have been worked on by a detailing crew to make everything look perfect.”

Gardening Zen

Schoenberger said he is pleased to be a member of the garden club. He pitched in right away to help with the group’s annual plant sale this spring on the Amherst town common. “I’ve bought a lot of plants at that sale in past years,” he said. “It was interesting to be on the other side of the table.”

“GCA members are all very friendly and want to share their gardening experience with other people who are genuinely interested,” he said. “Our spouses try to understand our gardening addiction but we need a larger support group. Gardening tends to be a lonely and isolated hobby, so it’s nice to wash off the dirt every now and then and actually talk to people.”

He added, “The upside of the isolation is the great thinking time you get. I’ve solved more problems working in my garden than I ever did in the office. Gardening is very Zen. Good karma abounds. Since joining the Garden Club of Amherst, I realize how much I’m enjoying being a part of my hometown community. I’ve worked in Springfield for the past 20 years and became quite disconnected from Hampshire County. So it’s nice to return to my roots.”