Weaving through a clump of plants, Barbara Hageney walks up a wood-chipped dune and gazes from the top at Jennings Beach. She lingers a moment, beside a juniper bush, and inhales the salty air. Then she turns to the subject of her garden.
"It's all self-sustaining; we rarely water any of it," she says proudly. "If something dies, it's just not meant to be here. It's survival of the plant."
Nearby, a head of Japanese forest grass pokes up through the mulch, unfurling like an ample pom-pom. "That's not even supposed to grow in the sun," she notes. "But there it is!"
And there, selected at random, is an iris flower, a beach rose, a Rose of Sharon, a bumble bee-covered spiraea, and a Russian sage.
That's just some of what grows inside the belt of greenery rolling from the end of Beach Road to the western edge of Jennings Beach. For the past dozen years, Hageney has helped lead a team of some 20 volunteers who tend to "Seaside Gardens," as it's named, with help from the town.
But there's one problem. Many of the volunteers are now retired -- and are tiring of the morning gardening routine. Recognizing this, club members sent out flyers last summer to beach-area mailboxes, hoping to recruit a few greener thumbs.
"Come for 15 minutes!" the flyers beckoned.
Nearly 100 flyers went out; zero flyers came back. Now, Hageney fears for the sustainability of the "self-sustaining" patch.
"There's no such thing as a `no-maintenance' garden, unless you're doing concrete," she says, a brace wrapped around her right, pruning hand. "Everybody wants us to keep it going. The question is: Can we keep it going?"
If the answer is no, then the Seaside Gardens could come to resemble the sandy hump of sea-grass and sticks comprising the rest of this town's beachside dunes. In fact, even that landscape is relatively new. While digging through their top soil, the gardeners' shovels often clink against blacktop -- a reminder that the area once was a parking lot.
But by the time the club formed 12 years ago, its narrow stretch was a thicket of poison ivy and weeds, Hageney says. It was then that her neighbor, Peg Rendl, came up with the idea of grooming the area. Rendl turned to Hangeney, a landscape designer by trade, for help with the planning. Hageney signed up, as did nearly two dozen other beach-area residents.
The club raised $3,500 in its first year, and spent most of the money on plants. Because the work is voluntary, maintenance costs for the garden are low. The seed money has mostly sufficed, but the town has also pitched in.
Every couple of years, the town buys new mulch for the garden, which club members spread or pay to have spread. Last year, the town put in a concrete curb near Beach Road to protect the mulch. This year, the town paved the pebbly walkway that connects the nearby sidewalk with the wooden ramp that leads to the beach.
There are other landscaping costs. Given the sunny location and monthly care, plants occasionally wither and die. Others get removed during redesigns. On a few occasions, cars speeding down Beach Road late at night have plowed through the front of the garden and damaged the plants.
Recently, someone stole an evergreen tree, which the club has replaced with a red twig dogwood. And a few years back, the club spent around $275 on an oval sign hanging on the wooden fence near Beach Road.
In recent years, the Fairfield Beach Road Association has chipped in $250 a year. That's helped, especially with spring cleaning costs, Hageney says. Still, the club embarked this year on its second-ever fundraising effort. Another 100 flyers went out. About 35-percent of residents responded this time, Hageney says, though donations are still being accepted. Given the state of its coffers, the club should be funded for the next five years, Hageney calculates. But its inability to recruit new volunteers presents the real problem.
"Most groups that adopt spots [in town] abandon them when they see how much work it takes to maintain, and the town has to take it over," Hageney says. Perched on top of the garden under sunny skies, she twirls toward Beach Road, and adds, "If the town were to take this over, it sure wouldn't look like this for long."
Anyone thinking of joining the club now has a couple advantages. For one, much of this year's grunt work -- the clearing of weeds, the pruning of plants and the spreading of mulch -- is already finished. Club members wanted the garden looking fresh for Memorial Day, so they met twice during the month of May.
The club is now back to its normal schedule -- meeting on the first Saturday of every month, May through September, beginning at 8:30 a.m., typically for a couple of hours. By meeting's end, there's generally a brambly heap of scraps at the corner of the Beach Road and Fairfield Beach Road, which the town then scoops up during the week and transports to the yard waste facility on One Rod Highway.
And there's advantage two. With most of the grunt work finished, there's more time now to pick Hageney's brain for gardening tips. Crossing the street to her own garden, she expounds on the important, often underappreciated relationship between leaf color and leaf texture. She then rattles off some winning color schemes, such as purple and gold. Twice a year, she offers these and other hints during her "Prune Like a Pro" course, which she teaches at her home for the town.
After a brief tour of her garden's winding flower beds, Hageney arrives at a pebble-lined catch basin in the front corner of her yard, where some of her 15 grandchildren like to play. Three rubber duckies and a plastic boat are splayed out, awaiting rainwater.
Hageney snatches an errant sprout with her braced pruning hand. "I'm not a meticulous gardener," she says. "There's a couple weeds in here."
For more information, e-mail Hageney at email@example.com