On a steamy afternoon in the Ropes Mansion garden, Sirkka Natti stands up from her water break against a beautiful historic brick wall and walks into the flower oasis. With garden shears tucked into the back pocket of her denim shorts, she opens her mouth and belts out an operatic aria.
Sirkka is studying to be an opera singer and this summer is a gardener with Cape Ann Tree, the people responsible for planting, pruning and watering PEM’s century-old garden all summer long.
Record spring rain, followed by ongoing periods of intense heat have not made it easy to care for the more than 2,000 plants that make up the historic garden. The sunflowers are starting to shoot up, signifying the deep summer and the fall to come when they’ll tower over everything. Soon the butterflies will be thick. The gardeners keep milkweed, in part because of the monarchs it attracts.
The other thing the garden attracts is visitors, or at least those who know about the secret garden behind the Ropes Mansion on Essex Street with its historic trees, fish pond, 1930s greenhouse and more than one thousand kinds of plants.
“People take great stewardship,” says Robin Pydynkowski, who has been head gardener since 2008. “They know it’s their garden and they keep an eye on things.”
An upcoming morning tour of the garden on Aug. 6, which has sold out, will focus on pruning. Robin’s advice is “look for sleeping buds in the leaf axle” and pinch them all the way down so that new growth can come back.
Those on the tour will also learn about the practice of journaling one’s design intentions and realities through photos and annotation. “We can follow humbly in the steps of (Thomas) Jefferson,” says Robin. “He was the best.”
Robin shares her elaborately hand-drawn sketches from years past, so she can keep track of changes. No two years are the same.
In 1912, John Robinson designed the Ropes Mansion’s garden and used plants that aren’t necessarily available today. But Robin tries to uphold his legacy and choose for the winding paths and symmetrical plant beds what the original designer would want. Each January, Robin takes out the plant catalogs and imagines what will will go where. The team ends up calling plants by pet names, like the beautiful cylinder flowers they affectionately refer to as “trolls.”
“You put them in and they’re just wee little things and it’s just a fun job. It’s a gift to do this sort of thing,” she says. “It’s certainly a challenge and it’s more than humbling. My favorite part is just watching it grow. In the silence, it sings.”
The Ropes Mansion and garden can be found at 318 Essex Street in Salem.