Marijke Niles cried after moving to Starksboro from South Bend, Indiana, in 2001.
While she was happy to move to northern Vermont — near the mountains and her daughter, who was then attending college in Montreal — Niles had a problem with the land around the house she and her husband had bought. .
Everything had been cut short, she recalls. “It was just kind of withered grass. Not much was going on,” she said. “I was actually in tears because I didn’t see any wildlife.”
Back in Indiana, Niles was known for her beautiful gardens and for welcoming all forms of nature into those gardens — even if that meant occasionally nibbling on her prized plants. “I always had plants that attracted everything,” she says.
In Starksboro, Niles immediately got to work planting perennial flowers, shrubs and berry bushes, focusing on native plants. More than two decades later, she can’t help but smile as she gazes at the colorful gardens, rich in flora and fauna that also housed her nursery, Marijke Plus Perennial Gardenssince 2008.
Niles, 76, emigrated from her native Netherlands to the United States in the early 1970s. “I come from a country where flowers are very important,” she said, noting that the fresh flowers are an integral part of most Dutch homes.
“I’ve always been a gardener,” Niles said. “I was the person who brought a plant to school when I was, like, 6 years old, and I took care of it.” When she arrived in Vermont, “we moved in with three cars full of plants and just a little space for people,” she recalls. “I couldn’t live without my gardens.”
Every year, between mid-May and October 1, Niles welcomes hundreds of customers attracted by the expert knowledge of the certified master gardener and his wide range of native plants propagated on site.
The many non-human visitors who come to its gardens for other reasons are also welcome. When Nest Arrested in the summer of 2021, Niles explained how the leaves of sunshine-yellow cup plants cradle water to create tiny watering holes for hummingbirds and bees. Monarchs floated among the bright orange flowers of the aptly named butterfly weed. “Look at the butterflies,” Niles said. “They like it here.”
In some cases, the gardener can gently try to divert the fauna from the flora. “I share,” she said. “I love everything that is alive.” For example, she planted several blueberry bushes where bears often emerge from the surrounding woods. The goal? “They’ll stop at these blueberries in hopes they don’t eat mine,” she explained with a smile.
These strategies aren’t always completely effective, but Niles takes it all in stride. A sign posted last summer by a group of heavily “pruned” hostas read: “Forgive our appearance. Deer at work.” It was one of many whimsical touches around the garden’s winding paths. Big-eyed stone owls watched from the “We Rock” rock garden. Sculptural succulents filled ski boots, wooden clogs and even a repurposed toilet bowl topped with another sign: “We know how to pot it.”
“Imagination and humor run wild in this commercial nursery,” enthused Yankee magazine in its March/April 2021 issue, which highlighted the best nurseries and garden centers in New England. He highlighted Niles’ focus on “low maintenance, ‘nutritious’ native plants and hardy succulents”.
Many loyal customers also sing his praises. Starksboro’s Kris Miceli was thrilled to discover Marijke’s Perennial Gardens Plus a few years ago. “It was so unexpected,” Miceli said. “We saw this little sign, and you go down this beautiful little road, and it opens up to all these flowers.” Miceli appreciates that Niles grows most of what she sells and can answer almost any question. “You can just choose his brain,” she said.
Even those with expertise said Niles teaches and inspires them. Shari Johnson of Cornwall met Niles through the University of Vermont Extension’s Master Gardener Program, in which Johnson is also certified. “He’s such a positive and capable person — so fun and so knowledgeable,” said Johnson, who particularly remembers a garden Niles created to look like a patchwork quilt with squares of different sedums.
When designing his gardens, Niles looks to Mother Nature for inspiration. It also includes native plant conservationist and advocate Doug Tallamy and his 2007 book, Bringing Nature Home: How to Preserve Wildlife with Native Plants, among his greatest influences. Although she’s careful to note that she’s not a purist, Niles said, “I definitely call myself a native nursery.”
Even if people only dedicate 10% of their gardens to native plants, she says, “it still forms a corridor for insects, butterflies and birds to go from one garden to another. a lot of good.”
In early spring, at Perennial Gardens Plus in Marijke, snowdrops and crocuses tentatively emerge from the cool ground, followed by a foamy sea of blue starfish and purple catnip. In late summer, pink and purple phloxes and coneflowers cluster like a multitude of bridesmaids around a large birdhouse on a pole. Underplantings of low, spreading plants such as red-leaved mukdenia cross the seasons, turning from bright green in spring to dark red in fall. Beyond their attractive foliage, they also shade the ground and help reduce the need for weeding and watering.
The gardens at Niles are by no means messy, but they are far from neat and there are no straight lines. “I like it flowing,” Niles said. “Nature does not plant in a row.”
Dramatically set against the backdrop of the surrounding woods, a massive 15-foot-tall boulder commands attention, and the mass of tall Joe-Pye grass and creamy burnet flowers planted at its base attract many insects .
The striking natural feature is known as “erratic” rock, deposited on this Starksboro hill during the Ice Age, Niles explained. “I try to plant around it in a way that it’s really visible,” she said.
In 2008, a major storm helped free up space for her nursery by knocking down about 120 trees. “They all flipped over like dominoes,” Niles said. The stumps of several still lie, roots exposed, anchoring the beds of ferns and mosses as they naturally decompose in place. A number fell around the huge boulder, making it more visible. “I was very grateful for that,” Niles said.
Closing in on 80, Niles shows no signs of slowing down. She has part-time help during the gardening season, but “I’m always weeding,” she said. “It keeps me at my best.”
In the winter, Niles keeps in shape on the slopes at the Sugarbush Resort, where for 21 years she has been teaching children from preschool through octogenarians to ski. She first fell in love with the sport many years ago in Austria for the same reason she is such a dedicated gardener. “There was this connection to nature that still catches up with me every day on the slopes,” she said. Her teaching job grew out of winter boredom, she said, “I need to be busy.”
From late spring through fall, Niles stays busy giving talks, workshops, and tours of her gardens. She has volunteered for the Vermont Flower Show for over 16 years and especially enjoys hosting youth groups from local summer programs. They explore every nook and cranny of the gardens, make succulent containers to take home, collect Japanese beetles in jars, and help layer newspaper and cardboard to remove weeds and grass for new plant beds. garden.
“I like to create memories for my guests from the impression of my gardens, but also because I share knowledge,” she said. “We celebrate nature.”