In this month’s Convo we meet the school’s wearer of many hats, Elaine Williamson. Elaine is a caretaker in so many aspects of the school and of her own life. She helps current students as Registrar, stewards our graduates as Alum Liaison, and oversees the Conway Library. She’s also Class of 2011, a Master Gardener, and founder of Elaine’s Plant Swap, a local gathering for plant enthusiasts to exchange the abundance of their gardens. The swap caught the attention of Martha Stewart herself, and Elaine’s brainchild was featured in an issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine in August of 2010. Roxy and Elaine talked about garden inspirations, field guides, and all the things that make this little part of the world beautiful.
Roxy: You’re both an alum and an employee.
Elaine: I started in the fall of 2010, and here we are 12 years later, it’s kind of wild. It’s been a while.
Roxy: Where did your interest in plants and gardening begin? What were your influences?
Elaine: It was growing up, in my dad’s garden. There are nine kids in my family, so we had this giant garden that fed us all, and could have fed half of South Hadley, too. My dad always planted way too much way too close. We grew up with fresh fruits and vegetables. I remember him teaching me how to plant seeds with my tiny little fingers. He taught me to enjoy that and watch things grow. That was my dad.
Roxy: What was the first landscape you ever remember falling in love with?
Elaine: One was right where I grew up—my own yard was fantastic. I also lived a mile from Mt. Holyoke College as a child, and they have a spectacular landscape, and we played there. It was our playground, riding bikes up and down the stairs at the amphitheater and fishing in the ponds and skating on the ponds in the winter, the tennis courts and oh my gosh, the greenhouse and the gardens there. That was the first greenhouse I had ever been to. We used to walk there. When I went there as a little child, we walked in and I left one day with this tiny little species of aloe. That was my first house plant. Whoever worked there thought, “Oh, this little girl would like this,” and I did, I loved it. It was a very cool place. My frame of reference for all future colleges was that they should look like Mt. Holyoke.
Roxy: You’ve been organizing Elaine’s Plant Swap for years. How did that come to be?
Elaine: Well, I was attending someone else’s that was about a 40 minute drive away. And I just decided, you know what? I don’t mind large gatherings—I’ve had plenty of big parties here. So I decided I’d just do it here. It started very small and then just kept growing and growing. Then once the word got out locally, it was hard to contain it, doubly so after the Martha Stewart magazine feature. It eventually got too big to manage; there were about 120 people crammed into my little side yard. So I stopped advertising, and it calmed down a bit. Now it goes in waves, people come and go over the years. They fill their gardens and they’re happy and then they move along, and then some new people come in and they stay awhile. So it’s a cycle, like anything else.
Roxy: Two things I admire about the swap are that you can put in a wish list request, and that there is quite a diversity of plants. It’s not just everyone’s day lilies.
Elaine: That’s by design. My background is in psychology, which is of course about understanding human behavior. I tried to figure out ways in which I could encourage people to bring good plants instead of the same old usual suspects. So that’s where the wish list came from. If you bring a wish list plant, you get a preferred pick, so people will receive nicer plants by being nicer.
Roxy: So that was your design?
Elaine: Yes, it’s a way to encourage positive behavior.
Roxy: Well, it worked! Elaine’s Plant Swap is known as a place where you can bring less typically seen plants and people will want them and appreciate them.
Elaine: The swap is also much more than giving and getting plants. It’s about learning how to grow, propagate, care for, and identify plants. Swappers come with questions and hope to learn how to be better gardeners. There’s a sense of community too. Many have become friends over the years. In the spring when we see each other again there’s a sense of reunion. It’s heartwarming.
Roxy: It’s interesting to think of how many gardens you’ve influenced through the swap.
Did you have any relationship or knowledge of Conway before coming as a student?
Elaine: I did. I became a Master Gardener in 2007, and I decided to attend an event at Conway when it was up on the Hill. It was in the middle of winter, so I decided to go to this snowy, hilly place in the dark to listen to the speaker. There were other Master Gardeners there, so I was hanging out with them, feeling comfortable. I’d never been there, never even heard of Conway even though I was born and raised here. So I went there and sat with my Master Gardener friends, and the speaker was Elizabeth Farnsworth. She was an ecologist who has since passed. She was also an illustrator, and had illustrated the Petersen’s Fern guide. And she worked for the New England Wildflower Society – that was its name back then. [It’s now called the Native Plant Trust]. She was such a dynamic speaker, a lovely person who had this wonderful vibe about her, very warm and engaging. She was brilliant, and a wonderful ecologist. I really enjoyed her talk, but I also liked the vibe of the place, the students and the faculty and staff. They were all so friendly. We were gathered in this snowy place, and there were fires going in the fireplaces, and I thought, “I could stay here!” That’s when I started to look into the school, and research it, and talk to people. That event was such a nice introduction. I had a really good sense of what Conway was all about, just from that one visit.
Roxy: What is a favorite Conway experience of yours?
Elaine: Oh, this question was fun, going back and thinking about my memories. And I actually found my old sketchbook and was looking at it. Yeah, one of my favorite memories is our fall orientation. We got to stay over at the Harvard Forest [In Petersham, MA], in this big old house with these big old rooms, and we had community meals, which were really nice. There was a firepit there where we relaxed and talked. That’s how we got to know each other. It was such a great bonding experience, while at the same time we were learning about the history of the forest from [Conway Trustee] John O’Keefe. A really good time. Exhausting, but good.
Roxy: I wonder how much this year’s class is missing out on those in-person, communal experiences because of the pandemic.
Elaine: They are. That bums me out, especially that they don’t get to see the alums like other classes have. It’s not right. The pandemic has taken its toll in so many ways, we’ve lost count.
Roxy: How did you end up working here?
Elaine: When I graduated I started doing residential design plans, and some design-install work. I also worked for years for the Conservation District, and used to hold their annual plant sale fundraiser, which I loved doing. I tried work as a Conservation agent for a few months and found it wasn’t for me. I always had a variety of irons in the fire. Conway’s Executive Director at the time knew that I had a background in event coordination because I was somewhat famous for the plant swap. So he asked me to organize some conferences, and that’s how I started. I did some additional work researching project clients – they were looking for different administrators in towns to help them make contacts. So they found jobs for me, and they kept finding more and more jobs for me, and they’re still finding them! Alum Liaison, Registrar, Librarian…
Roxy: An Elaine-of-all-trades! Conway has an amazing library.
Elaine: It is pretty cool. It’s really an enjoyable place. I field a lot of donations from people, and then sift through those donations and see what we need. The books that are getting really old I put out of circulation, and replace them with newer ones that people donate. I think I just got another offer today for more books. It’s fun. When I do that work, there are some of the books I feel like I could just live in. I think, “Oh, this is wonderful, but I really just need to put it on a shelf.”
Roxy: What’s a book that changed your life?
Elaine: I don’t know if I have any life-changing books. I look around my office, and I’m surrounded by plant books and design books, and I absolutely love them. I remember one of the first ones that I ever got, I thought it was fascinating. It was just a simple Audubon book, one of the guides to the Northeast. I memorized that little book, I loved it. It had sections on fauna and flora and I found it really relaxing and comforting to look at all the things that I would see outside, while sitting at my desk and reading about them. It might sound odd that I’d be so fascinated and happy with a reference book.
Roxy: No, field guides are amazing!
Elaine: There are some fascinating field guides to New England. I don’t even know how many of them I own. I’m also a tremendous mushroom fanatic and forager. I’ve got this collection of mushroom books. Here’s one, Mushrooms Demystified [by David Arora]. There’s a whole mushroom section in my home library.
Roxy: Very cool. I try and share that with my son. He seems kind of resistant so far. I think he feels like, “Enough plants already!”
Elaine: It is funny, not everybody is interested in it, and it might be at different times of your life that you’re more or less interested.
Roxy: I’ve heard a lot of people who say they get sick of hearing about it as a kid but they circle back to it as an adult, or they’re grateful for that knowledge when they’re older.
Elaine: I say that about mushrooming with my dad. He knew a lot about it, but I was at that age where I was completely uninterested. Now I wish I had listened, because he was one of the brightest people I’ve ever known, and he had all kinds of knowledge about it. But he also did foolish things, like say, “Well if I’m dead in two hours, you’ll know what did it.” You don’t want to hear that!
Roxy: “Wild edibles, the trial and error method!” [Editor: DO NOT try this at home.]
Elaine: What’s the saying? “All mushrooms are edible, some only once.”
Roxy: True! What is the coolest mushroom you’ve ever foraged?
Elaine: Oh, I got a giant one a few years back. It’s called Cauliflower Mushroom (Sparassis crispa), and it looks like a giant brain. It was delicious. It kind of looked more like egg noodles, but it was hard to clean because of the shape. I found it in Lawrence Swamp, which is a large open space behind my house, hundreds of acres. I found two of them, one smaller and then this ginormous one at the base of a white pine tree.
Roxy: Amazing! And what’s your favorite mushroom to forage?
Elaine: The black trumpet – chanterelle.
Roxy: You’ve continued to do design consulting as well as working for Conway.
What do you enjoy designing and whom do you enjoy designing for?
Elaine: I am more drawn to working with natives and using things that are already on site. I’m not a big fan of tons of hardscape, I like softer spaces and using wood chips instead of pavement, for instance. It’s more comfortable for me, so those are the kinds of sites I enjoy. One of my favorite things when I’m consulting for people is to walk around their property, answering all their questions, and drinking wine with them. It’s the ultimate job, and people get a lot out of it. I take my clipboard, and they might have something too, and we’re both taking photos. Then we share photos and notes at the end of it. Some people don’t want a formal site design, they just have a lot of questions about their landscape. They’ll ask, “What’s this here?,” or “Do you think this could be anything different?” They just want ideas, and they want to start thinking about making changes. That’s always fun to do.
Roxy: What does your own garden look like?
Elaine: Oh, wow, I have so many gardens! I’ve got 15-20 different gardens, some of them neater than others. Some are more tidy and planned. Over the years I’ve gone more into the realm of edibles. I still really enjoy flowers and foliage. I love cut flowers – I always cut flowers from my yard to bring to graduation. But I really enjoy growing fruit. Now I have all kinds, and I make wine from it. So right now behind a chair in my living room I have two kinds of wine fermenting. One’s a peach/ginger, from my own peaches. And the other is a black raspberry from my own black raspberries. Delicious. Then of course, there are all the other fruits: rhubarb, strawberries, pawpaws, currants. So I have a lot of different fruits that I really enjoy growing.
Roxy: Would you call your gardens more on the manicured side or more on the wild side?
Elaine: Probably somewhere in the middle. I try to keep the edges somewhat neat, so they’re not unkempt, but I don’t mind things growing together. I like things in masses, so they flow together. I don’t like specimen gardens where things are divided by mulch. You know, I like things growing together because then you need less mulch.
Roxy: Did your Conway education influence your garden design?
Elaine: Yes. When I was at Conway, it was one of the snowiest winters ever. During that winter our pool collapsed from all the snow. My kids were grown up and gone and we had only a chocolate lab, who loved that pool. But the pool was mainly used for the dog. So we took down the pool, and I put in a peach tree, strawberries, raspberry bushes, blueberry bushes, and currants in its place. So that circle is now a circular garden of fruit producing plants. It was totally Conway-influenced, going from wasting resources on our dog pool to a fruit producing garden. That’s a giant change.
Roxy: What is your spirit plant?
Elaine: I would say probably my black raspberries. I grew up with them in my parents’ yard and I have always loved them. If someone asked me what meal I would want to eat for my last meal on this planet, it would be a black raspberry pancake. I love them, and black raspberry wine is so good. I’ve learned how to prune them properly. When we were kids, we didn’t know what we were doing, so we just cut the big primocanes down because they were in the way. Now I know not to do that, because those are what produce next year’s fruit. In the spring I’ll go out there and look at them, and look at the buds forming and get excited if it looks like it’s going to be a good year.
I love watching plants grow, watching the buds grow. They’re there all year, and then in the spring you watch them expand and pop. If you look at a growing bud, and you see it unfold, that looks designed to me, it looks like someone designed that. They’re so perfect and symmetrical and geometric. Almost like something created that, a power-that-be, or what have you.
Roxy: Indeed. That reminds me of a line from a book I just finished reading, The Overstory by Richard Powers. “She marvels again at how the planet’s supreme intelligence could discover calculus and the universal laws of gravitation before anyone knew what a flower was for.” The trees had it figured out long before we did.
Elaine: It’s so interesting, that there is math and geometry in plants, when you spend the time to look at them.