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Starksboro gardener’s artistic talent blooms

STARKSBORO — Twelve years ago the property on Robert Young Road purchased by Price and Marijke Niles for their retirement was full of grass, brambles and brush.
“It was so bad, the real estate agent told us not to buy it,” Marijke Niles, 67, recalled. “But we fell in love with the big rock, the view and the pond, and I wanted a big open space where I could garden.”
And so she has. Over the years, Niles has transformed the sprawling property. Were it not for the distinctive, flat-faced rock about two stories high on the property, the field depicted in the photograph Niles shows visitors of the property before she began gardening would be totally unrecognizable today. On display on a recent tour, lush flowerbeds soaked up the midday sun, whimsical pathways led visitors to the different beds and a picnic area, and rows of gooseberry, raspberry and blueberry bushes were laden with fruit.
This month, she is building up the property in a different way: Niles has made a whimsical sculpture garden on the property using all-recycled materials. She held a grand opening last Saturday, and she is inviting the public to come to the gardens to take a tour on almost every day through Aug. 12. The exact times of the 45-minue tours is on Niles’ website, perennialgardensplus.com; admission is $8. The gardens are open 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
On display are whimsical rock sculpture installations of a shoe store, a kitchen, a touring bike, a chick quilt and the willy-nilly wishing wall. She is also offering to teach guests how to build their own sculptures out of recycled materials like rocks, found objects and tree stumps.
Niles’ artistic talent was clearly on display in the garden even before she began making sculptures. Visitors to the gardens — which she has run as a business for six years, called Marijke’s Perennial Gardens Plus — post comments on her website that attest to the “magic” and “magnificence” of the space, which has clearly been designed by someone with a finely honed sense of aesthetics.
“People say I have a good eye,” Niles admits.
She jokes that she was dissuaded from pursuing an artistic career when she a child.
“When I was young I tried to draw, and they told me I was not an artist at all,” she said. “Then I asked if I could sit for other artists and they said, ‘No, your face is too round!’ I was very upset.”
Instead, she earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Notre Dame. She worked for the university and on the side she managed theaters and ballet companies and volunteered for symphonies. A voracious skier, she met husband Price on the lifts in Sun Valley, Idaho.
“We both said ‘single’ and went up together, and that was that,” Price Niles, a retired orthopedic surgeon, recalled.
The couple’s move to Vermont for their retirement was Marijke’s idea, her husband said. She had fallen in love with Vermont while their daughter, Kirsten, completed studies at McGill University in Montreal and Marijke made trips to bring her son to Vermont for summer camp.
After working for several years at the Basin Harbor Club and building up the Starksboro property, she was able to focus on her passion of gardening full-time. She became a certified Master Gardener and Master Composter, and serves on the UVM Extension Master Gardener State Advisory Board.
It’s a passion that has grown over a lifetime.
“I’m Dutch, so I always liked plants, but I had to mow when I was young and I didn’t like that,” said Niles, who estimates her gardening passion has now endured for over “probably 60 years.”
She takes every opportunity to be in her garden space, working with the land’s tendencies instead of against them. When several trees on the property were uprooted by severe storms, she trimmed back the exposed roots and planted in and around the holes the stumps had made in the ground, creating a beautiful garden bed out of decaying tree stumps.
These days, Marijke’s Perennial Gardens Plus is one of Starksboro’s main attractions, and both Price and Marijke thrive on the interactions with people from the surrounding area as well as the random visitors from around the globe who wander into their yard.
“People are very surprised that something like it exists in Vermont,” Niles said. “We get people from other countries by accident because of the road signs … I used to travel the world, now the world comes to me and my gardens.”

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