Ilsley Library’s gardens have a special keeper

MIDDLEBURY — Anna Rose Benson has been meticulously tending to the gardens around the Ilsley Public Library in downtown Middlebury since the early 2000s.
Her love for the gardens is contagious; she radiates joy each minute she spends planning the space, digging the soil and encouraging each bud and blossom with her care.
“Do you know the book ‘Corduroy’ about the bear?” Benson asked. In the book a teddy bear named Corduroy waits on the shelf in a department store for someone to come and take him home.
“At the end a little girl finally comes and brings him home and Corduroy finds what he was always waiting for,” Benson explains. “I feel like that with this garden. When I found this project I felt like this is the home I’d been looking for.
“I’m very, very happy. I love it,” she added.
Benson enjoys the central location of the library and gardens, which encourages people to stop as they’re walking down Main Street and enjoy the growing plants.
“People are so appreciative and it feels good every time someone says they’re glad that these gardens are kept up.”
Benson is a small woman with gray hair and hands that have clearly spent a lot of time in dirt. She has a soft, raspy voice that gives way to a youthful energy. When she talks about gardening she whirls with excitement, making large, animated gestures and skipping like a giddy child between thoughts and visions about what she’d like to do with the space.  
The Ilsley Library has been at its current location on Main Street since 1924. Ilsley Director Kevin Unrath says preliminary gardens existed before Benson started her work on the landscaping, but they were limited to foundational planting of a few shrubs and bushes.
“Anna has really turned the ‘grounds’ into a ‘garden,’” Unrath said.
Barbara Blodgett is a Middlebury resident and long-time member of the Middlebury Garden Club. She was also on the Ilsley board of directors in the early 2000s and was a strong advocate for Anna’s gardens.
“It took a long time to convince the board and the town to allocate a budget to the gardens, but we finally got it,” Blodgett said.
“I really feel the garden is such a special feature in town that deserves to look nice and be well kept.”
At the time Benson began to dig into her work the grounds were in pretty bad shape, Blodgett recalled, with kids running around all over the plants and library staff with no experience pruning the trees and shrubs.
“Anna’s really been the one to take the garden project under her wing,” Blodgett said.
Blodgett remembers Benson starting off by hauling rocks to the site to construct walls and barriers designed to encourage kids and visitors to stay out of garden beds.
The front gardens were established first, followed by the gardens behind the library. Benson brought in dirt to supplement the depleted soil and split many plants and flowers from her own gardens to start new beds at the library.
While Benson does the vast majority of labor in the gardens, the  Middlebury Garden Club as well as other volunteers in the community continue to support her work both with financial contributions as well as donations of plants and compost.
With her modest budget, Benson typically purchases half a yard of soil from Vermont Natural Ag Products each year for both the gardens in the front and in the back of the library to supplement the naturally sandy and densely packed soil that is particularly nutrient deficient. She uses the remainder to purchase supplemental plants.
“I’m used to gardening on the cheap, so I’m always collecting dirt and rocks and things from neglected places and bringing them in,” Benson said.
Occasionally folks will bring garden gifts and donations of plants or bulbs or cuttings that they believe could thrive in these public spaces, helping to keep the spaces full and ever-changing.
All of the plants in the gardens are perennials (meaning they grow back each year), whether they spur from bulbs or tubers or rhizomes, stems, stalks or trunks. They vary significantly in size and color, ranging from tall maple trees and mature lilac bushes to delicate Siberian squill just a few inches tall.
Most plant species in Benson’s garden are fairly common in the area, but are remarkably healthy and robust specimens.
Visitors in early May will find the bleeding hearts bushy and loaded with the pink or white flowers shaped like hearts that give them their name.
The daffodils, hyacinths and Siberian squill are almost past as the warm weather approaches, but the tulips, forget-me-nots and summer snowdrops bloom gloriously. Close behind them will be the many types of roses that Benson has planted as well as peonies and violets.
She also has a few new blueberry bushes in the ground as well as other flowering and fruit-bearing shrubs and small trees such as amelanchier (juneberry), Nanking cherry, quince, crabapple and chokeberry.
Benson has a particular affinity for these fruit-bearing varieties, which attract birds, bees and other insects.
While undoubtedly much of the success of the gardens is due to Benson’s dedication and care, they are also well sited for success.
The back garden’s tall white stone walls face southeast and reflect light back into the garden. They also absorb heat during the day and protect against cold north winds, creating a warm microclimate perfect for early-season gardening.
Benson does shifts working in the gardens of a couple hours at a time, spending between four and 10 hours a week there during the growing seasons.
“I’m old, so I can’t do really long stretches anymore, but it’s hard to stay away when I just keep thinking of what I want to do in here,” she said.
The time working in the gardens goes fast, spent thinking and planning the space and the plant varieties that could thrive in each inch of the garden and with each plant around it, Benson said. “No one wants to move plants that are already rooted and happy in a location,” she said, “so I try hard to get it right the first time.”
Her goal is simple and profound: to create a truly special community garden that animals (including humans) can visit and take refuge in.
So far, she’s done an excellent job.

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