Person of the Week
Bonnie Penders: A Wise Yet Modest Gardener
Gardener extraordinaire for the Old Saybrook Historical Society, Bonnie Penders wants to share her enthusiasm and hard-won experience with others. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Penders )
Old Saybrook Historical Society’s celebrated gardener Bonnie Penders is an advanced master gardener, a certified Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut (FGCC) landscape design consultant, and the 2020 recipient of the FGCC’s prestigious Ellen Carder Memorial Award for noteworthy horticulture achievement. But she will tell you that much of her expertise has been attained through trial and error.
“[A] lot of people are not gardeners and say, How does she do that?” Bonnie says. “It’s not a mystery, really...You learn from mistakes, right? I tell people that all the time when they say, ‘How do you know what you know?’
“I say,’Because I’ve made every mistake in the book,’” she responds.
Many people quit gardening after an outlay of money that didn’t pan out, Bonnie explains. They buy beautiful plants at the garden store, replant them in their yards, and watch them die. Then they shrug their shoulders and give up, ascribing the failure to a brown thumb.
Bonnie’s been there, done that.
“I got tired of doing that,” she continues. “And I did a lot of that: hundreds and hundreds of dollars, really, over the years.”
Her solution was research.
“I enjoy learning about the history and how plants were used to help people,” she says, “and to see what plants have survived centuries and centuries...to help people with bodily functions as well as sustenance.”
The historical society, she says, “more or less gave me an open palette: Which of these gardens do I want to work in? ...[I]t was like a gift.”
Bonnie currently works on four beds in the gardens behind the historical society’s General William Hart House. One is a teaching garden known as “Herbs with a Purpose,” which is used to teach local 3rd graders about how herbs were used in 18th-century Old Saybrook—that is, not only to flavor foods but to treat ailments and chronic conditions.
“The General William Hart family was self-contained, grew everything they ate,” she says, adding that tour groups also come to the garden for educational tours.
Her second garden bed, the Lady Fenwick Garden, is named for Lady Alice Apsley Boteler Fenwick (c. 1614–1645) who, in the early 17th century, was one of only three women living at the Saybrook Fort and is known to be have been an avid gardener, thanks to surviving letters written by her husband, Colonel George Fenwick, the Saybrook Colony’s second governor.
As Lady Fenwick died of complications from childbirth, the garden focuses on 17th-century herbs that would have been used by midwives and Native Americans to treat women’s health concerns.
Bonnie also tends an annual culinary herb garden that is harvested each week for the food pantry at the First Congregational Church next door.
“I love that garden,” she says. “[I]t’s the parsleys, the dills, the chives—the herbs that we all use a lot in” our cooking. “People who are going through the food pantry line, when they’re getting day-old bread and canned vegetables, we make them little posies of a sprig of rosemary, a sprig of thyme, parsley, and they can take it home with them to enhance their food. So that garden is important to me.”
Last, Bonnie took on the tending of a woodland garden that was left somewhat neglected after its gardener moved to the west coast.
“That’s full of shade and ephemerals—fleeting perennial plants in the spring. Snowdrops, trillium, lots of good stuff in there,” she says, adding that she fell in love with it.
“I just had to [take it on] because it’s such a beautiful garden,” she continues. “I wanted to make sure it looked its best, or at least as good as I could get it.”
She focuses on these four garden beds at the Hart House in addition to the gardening work she does at her own home.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from my own yard,” she says. “However, I get my most satisfaction from developing gardens that others can enjoy, because it could pique their interest. I’m always hoping that people walk through [and] get inspired. That’s really what my goal is here is: to inspire young people or people from Old Saybrook. And it always surprises me how many people live in Old Saybrook and don’t even know about [the Hart House] garden.”
Bonnie says her earliest recollections are of being “drawn to flowers, plants, gardens, and picturesque landscaping,” as she wrote in her application for UConn’s master gardener program, but during her childhood, her family expended its efforts elsewhere. It wasn’t until she retired and her three children moved out of the house that she began to explore ways to educate herself in how to grow things.
“I had a dear friend, now deceased, in Middletown, and she was an art educator,” Bonnie recalls. “And she could see anything, and paint it or draw it, or recreate it with her pen and paper. When she looked at a flower...it was with a keen sense of the location of the leaves, like from a botanical aspect, and I think seeing gardening from her eyes...was a gift that I can’t speak highly enough of.
“And then she was a good teacher,” she continues. “She taught me as she was helping me see.”
It’s perhaps for this reason that Bonnie values her role as mentor, especially to young people.
“I think that probably goes along with almost any profession,” she says. “When you first come out of high school, or college...and if you have someone who you enjoy, and they enjoy you, and you like what they’re doing, and they have more experience, and you can listen and look.
“[Th]e historical society has...they just feed me people who want to listen to me and it’s again a gift to me,” she adds. “And I like to impart the gardening world to young people.”
Bonnie worked with Old Saybrook High School 2019 Salutatorian Elaine Yang, who she met when Elaine volunteered in the Hart House herb garden as her community service for graduation.
“What a super kid,” Bonnie says.
The two worked to put the gardens to bed for the winter and, while Yang was forthright about coming in with no knowledge about gardening, she “is a keen listener, follows instructions with precision, and asks very few but important questions,” as Bonnie wrote in a historical society newsletter about the experience.
Bonnie still keeps in touch with Yang, who is now sophomore in college.
“I also enjoy working with master gardener interns,” Bonnie says.
The 16-week master gardener course requires each participant to complete a project as well as put in 30 hours of community service hours. And because people enter the program for all sorts of reasons—some want to become farmers, others foresters, and still others turf experts for golf courses—the learning flows in both directions.
Words to the Wise
The most crucial element of gardening is easy to locate, simply by looking down.
The first step to creating a garden might be “developing your soil so that it suits the plants that you want to grow because soil is key,” Bonnie says. “In my mind...it’s all about the soil, soil, soil, soil. You take care of the soil, and the soil will take care of you.”
When starting out, it’s best to start simple, she says. Create a plan and plant in “swathes, not onesies, twosies...Properly distance all plants with a view of their mature size.”
For those who are as serious, determined, and cerebral as Bonnie, some knowledge of Latin is an enormous help.
“I did study Latin for four years in high school,” she explains. “Latin is the only way to learn about a plant, in my opinion...[I]f you never took any Latin, the Linnaeus—nomenclature for plants—would be a lot more challenging.”
Understanding the nomenclature also helps a novice gardener make the connections between plants of similar species.
“It’s really is the way to learn the finer aspects—to take yourself on a journey just a little bit further than, Gee, I think this is a nice plant, I’ll bring it home,” she says. “You go all the way to understanding the Latin, and why it makes a difference in what you purchase for your yard.”