The souls of the plantsmen are rooted in their gardens
By Steven Hoffman
There are those who plant a seed in the spring, await the sprouting, pick the flower and that’s the end of it.
But there are others for whom the gardening season is the whole year, and the arrival of flowers and fruits are just one part of the annual parade. These people find joy in every aspect of the growing, and their passion pushes them to expand their gardens to ever greater heights.
Those people are known as “plantsmen,” and they are often thought of as God’s gift to the earth. It has been said that a plantsman is one who loves plants for their own sake and knows how to cherish them.
Four local plantsmen spoke with the Chester County Press and explained their affinity for their gardening avocations:
Brandi Mattoscio, 44, moved to her home in New Garden two years ago in anticipation of her outdoor yard wedding with Brain, whose family, the Pratolas, occupy large plots of land in the area and enjoy generations of growing, including mushrooms and roses.
Gina Focht, 57, came to Unionville with her husband and children 27 years ago. Her roots are in Delaware County, but the family moved to Unionville, attracted by the prestigious school system. She began her garden with a few spring bulbs.
Dan Maffei, 50, is a landscape designer who is heavily active in the life of Kennett Square. His home sits at a neighborhood corner on Garfield Street. He said he has “done a complete 180” from his youth when he despised the tasks of caring for his parents’ lawn.
June Sitko, 67, is retired and lives in Kennett Square on a shady lot near the Episcopal Church. When she came to her home in 1984, it had a few azaleas and several large trees. Now it is covered with gardens.
Each person has his or her own stories and features, but they also shared several characteristics in common: the passion, the seasons, the expansion and the closeness to nature.
For one thing, they never stop reaching for higher ground, and working in the garden doesn’t get them tired.
“It’s my passion, my escape and my relaxation. It energizes me,” Mattoscio said.
“I grew up on a farm and it’s my passion,” Sitko said.
The changing of the seasons does not diminish their enthusiasm, either.
Focht explained that her garden is active four seasons out of the year. The produce and the flowers are great in the summer, but she also loves the fall cleanup and colors, the subtle shades and holly of the winter, and the anticipation of getting ready in the spring.
Maffei went a bit further to say winter could possibly be his favorite season. That’s the time he peruses the catalogs, plants the bulbs and plans what he wants for the next summer. “If you want daffodils, you have to plant them at Thanksgiving. And if you want the bulbs, you have to order them in early fall,” he said.
“Spring is a funny animal. You never know when it’s coming,” he added.
For Mattosio, the coming of winter means record keeping about the garden and supplementing the glory of the garden with Christmas and Halloween decorating.
Sitko and her husband carry on a lengthy rescue operation when the cold weather comes, bringing the plants inside in pots to their garden room, where she nurtures them all winter, placing some of them under lights.
Another thing these plantsmen have in common is their drive.
Compared to their non-gardening neighbors, their industriousness is daunting. They keep acquiring more plants and enhancing the individual garden plots they already have. They see and seek the new stuff everywhere – friends, end of season sales, gifts.
They talked about the joy of finding a plant no one wanted and bringing it back to life.
Focht said when she first settled in Unionville, she began by planting a few early spring bulbs and some vegetables. That developed into a constant expansion into new areas all over the property. She now has a massive vegetable garden with squash, pumpkins, tomatoes and more. There is also a “cutting garden” with beautiful flowers, several outdoor living areas and a shadowed back area of ferns.
She and her husband have also added a rescue hut that is used for protecting the plants if there is a threat of frost, and several patio areas for outdoor living.
Her patios reflect her love of nature. “I would say my preference is living outside 70 percent of the time,” she said.
Maffei said there were a couple old trees on his land when he moved in, and that’s about all. Now his garden is the showpiece of the neighborhood with tall mullien plants rising like the spires of Notre Dame at the corner of his lot. Like all the others, he could not resist creating a restful patio-plus-fire-pit.
When Mattoscio first moved into the house, she said it was bare of plants – “a plain,” she said. Now the flowers and greens completely surround the house and back fence, while zucchinis are ready to emerge from the vegetable garden. She also purchased what looks like an indoor sink, but it isn’t. It is made for outdoor use and hooks up to the hose faucet. From there, she can use it as a workbench. It is a convenient work area she said she couldn’t do without now.
The plantsmen also share an almost mystical attachment to the natural world. They don’t dominate their plants or the weather or the shadows. They work with them.
They also have a special communication with their gardens.
“You have to listen to your plants. Plants want a certain thing,” Maffei ssid.
He talked about trying to energize a certain plant with mulch, but the plant refused his efforts until he found a natural ground cover that the plant was apparently longing for. The plant thrived after that.
Focht described how her ferns were doing fine until there was a shift in the lighting from the nearby Unionville Park. She said she had to readjust the variety of plants in that once-shady corner to accommodate the changes in the light.
Focht is also a regular host to hummingbirds and knows what attracts them. She said they visit her trumpet vine, and when the blossoms open up like cones they come eagerly to suck the nectar.
Mattoscio is likewise a lover of hummingbirds and butterflies, and she plants bee balm and hollyhock just outside her work-at-home window, where she is visited regularly by both.
Sitko has become an aficionado of hostas, a plant that thrives in shade. She has come to know their soil and light preferences and even what shades their leaves turn – by species – as the seasons evolve. She also has acquired plants that seem to spring up in certain places – apparently by accident -- because the birds have eaten seeds elsewhere and their droppings landed in just the right place in her garden.
“Maybe the plants talk to the birds and say, ‘Take me here,’” she said.
As the summer moves on, there are those in the population who put away their shovels and trowels until they pick them up again next spring.
But for the plantsmen, the waning of the warm weather is just part of the natural cycle that leads to a busy winter and another glorious spring.
It’s time to harvest the zucchini and pumpkins for now, and then on to the cleanup and the ordering of the bulbs.