Growing up, Karen Thomas was surrounded by passionate gardeners. Gardening was in her genes, with grandparents, on both sides, sharing a love of plants, and her mother, an active member of Rye Garden Club, imparting her enthusiasm.
By Caitlin Brown
Growing up, Karen Thomas was surrounded by passionate gardeners. Gardening was in her genes, with grandparents, on both sides, sharing a love of plants, and her mother, an active member of Rye Garden Club, imparting her enthusiasm. Karen and her four siblings spent weekends doing yard work — mowing, raking, and planting in their vegetable and flower gardens.
The hours spent by her mother’s side gave Thomas a true love of gardening. “The reason I love to do this is really my mom. She grew up in Rye, on Apawamis Avenue, and her passion for gardening was contagious. “Hanging out, for us, was going to Nabel’s. Conversations at the dinner table were often about the garden.”
When Thomas and her family bought their beautiful 1905 home 20 years ago, she was provided with the perfect opportunity to start her own garden journey. Although exposed to gardening her whole life, she wasn’t sure how to start. “We didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend, but the Nabel’s bill was never complained about.”
With the help of Nabel’s, especially Jose, Karen began planting with her mother’s lessons in mind: good bones (structure), good soil, texture, succession of bloom, and a bit of fragrance. Her mother helped plant bulbs in the gardens and when Thomas walks around, she lovingly points out various plants that were favorites of hers. Much of the garden is a tribute to her mother, who passed 5½ years ago.
Interesting mixtures of size and shapes, color, and keepsakes from friends and loved ones make this garden truly special. For her, it seems a tangible thing of beauty that is almost a log of memories, both of people close to her and of years of study. In the shade garden is a blanket of Lady’s Mantle. “My mom loved how they collected dew,” said Karen.
Many of her plant choices are informed by her studies. Thomas has spent years studying at the New York Botanical Garden School of Horticulture and continues to. Her tree collection is an arboretum of unique and special varieties she planted early on. She planted: Styrax Japonicas: “little upside-down bell-like blossoms in the spring… one of my Mom’s favorites” and Hepacodium Miconiode “September white, fragrant blooms and beautiful bark.”
In the front of the house, she put in another of her mother’s favorites, a Stewartia Pseudocamelia, “June white blossom with beautiful exfoliating bark and a vase-like structure.” The front circle boasts a Davidia Involucrata (Dove tree) with “May white flowers — a good winter tree structure.” The list continues.
Among the many different kinds of gardens on the property is a shade garden in the back that displays her interest in native plants. “All along, I have had my eye out for unusual plants that add something positive to the garden either by their beauty or supporting wildlife.” Thomas just finished reading two books on this: “Trees,” by Michael Dirr and “Gardening to Promote Biodiversity,” by Douglas Tallamy.
On either side of the back courtyard steps, are formal knot gardens, which Thomas had always wanted to put in. Behind the formal gardens, is a beautiful sunroom/conservatory (when they ripped up the floor they found an old black-and-white marble gem underneath), with terrariums and potted indoor plants (including the showstopper, a cutting from her grandfather’s conservatory).
“We have always had a vegetable garden and recently switched to raised beds where we focus on lettuce, peas, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, Swiss chard, and beets.”
The main thread throughout Thomas’s lovely gardens is a clear love for her mother, the legacy of garden passion and lifetime commitment that came down to her, and the desire to learn through education and sharing with other gardeners.
Thomas, former President of the Rye Garden Club and still an active member, said, “One of the greatest joys for me in gardening is sharing plants and having gifts from other gardeners, including Peggy Peters, Jean Izard, Betsy Jennings, Margie Cheney, and, more recently, Mary Julian. Some of these gifts are from Nature herself. Thomas loves to let unexpected seedlings pop up, like the wonderful self-sowed Catalpa tree that stands by the back grill.
She is not alone in appreciating the surroundings. When her husband, Dave, comes home from work, he loves to stroll through the garden and see what has sprouted and what’s coming. The Thomas garden continues its legacy as a family affair.