Being a constant student keeps gardening fresh

Story and Photo by Joyce Grunewald

Many lifetime gardeners can trace their passion back to family members. Fran Boninti is no exception. Her grandmother and mother were the people who, genetically and by example, planted the seed for her love of what grows in her garden. A touching reminder of her grandmother, “Baba Franica,” shows itself when snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) appear in Fran’s garden in late winter. These very plants are grandchildren themselves of the five tiny bulbs Baba Franica tucked away in her pocket when she left Croatia for America 65 years ago. 

Fast forward to Virginia where Fran and her husband, Andrew, have cultivated 2 acres surrounding their home of the past 37 years. It is the perfect specimen of a woodland garden – always changing and growing into a nurturing nest for native plants. Fran’s early studies in anthropology and human society have evolved into a focus on the society of plants. 

These snowdrop blooms (Galanthus nivalis) are from bulbs brought to America from Croatia by Fran’s grandmother.

Her joy in gardening extends past the soil she cultivates on her property. This is reflected in the 18-plus horticulture related organizations of which she is a member. It is through these memberships, and their publications, that she is a constantly exposed to new ideas and plants. As a member of the American Horticulture Society, she received her certificate for horticulture judging. Her Virginia Master Gardener training was in 1991 and she continues to actively support many aspects of the Piedmont MG organization. To date, she has clocked almost 12,000 volunteer hours as a master gardener! The Native Plant Society has been the most influential in her garden planning. In addition, native plant books by authors Doug Tallamy, William Cullina, and Rick Darke hold coveted spots for reference on her bookshelves.

Fran’s youthful appearance and spirit captures anyone who meets her. As a lecturer, she enthusiastically shares her knowledge and experiences in and around the garden. When asked what advice she would give to someone new to gardening, she is quick to reply that a gardener should first focus on the garden’s bones and structure. Planting trees and shrubs take precedence. Perennials should come later. She emphasizes the importance of education through programs such as master gardener classes and tree steward training. What she has personally learned through gardening is accepting failure and learning from it. She advocates and practices being a constant student. This is what keeps gardening fresh, successful, and forward thinking. Forward thinking like five bulbs tucked in a pocket.

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