The Wonder Weeders

In friendship as in gardening, you need patience, generosity, and the willingness to get your hands a little dirty. Here’s the story of a group of women who tend to one another as carefully as they tend to their plants.

Photo by Katherine Wolkoff

Gayle Jamison’s garden in Woodstock, New York, is a well-ordered oasis filled with gentle lines of peonies and hydrangeas, artfully placed azaleas, and weeping cherry trees. A soothing vista dotted with various shades of pink and purple, the garden is so immaculately maintained that you would expect to see a professional landscaper continuously at work perfecting it.

Not so. Instead, on Friday mornings from April through September, you will find a cheerful band of six women—some graying, some not, most of them attired in old T-shirts or overalls and work boots. One day a week, they set aside their own jobs to garden as a team at one of their homes, rotating every week so that each woman’s property gets the full benefit of their collective burst of labor and artistic vision.

In the eight years since the group came together, the women, who call themselves the Wonder Weeders, have created pathways and sculptures, moved trees, and carved out acres of gardens from hillsides and overgrown bramble. Often they converse as they work, talking about the primroses that they are mulching, the big news that a friend has just received, or challenges that they are facing with their jobs. Other times they seem to read one another’s minds, knowing when it’s time to put down the garden gloves and just listen.

Sowing the Seeds

The women might never have come together except for an accident that befell 67-year-old Terry Funk-Antman in 2001. She shattered her knee, which left her unable to care for her garden. One day, frustrated at seeing her beloved roses wither away, she hobbled out to her front yard. Her neighbor Cathera Lane, a painter and a gifted gardener in her own right, walked by the house as Terry balanced precariously on her crutches, attempting to pull weeds. Although the two had exchanged only a few words, Cathera instantly offered her assistance. “You point to things and tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” she said.

As the two women walked through Terry’s garden and got acquainted, Cathera suggested that they might help each other out from time to time. Then Terry had an epiphany: “If two people can work this way, why not six or seven?” Cathera loved the idea, and they started brainstorming about whom to invite. “We wanted real gardeners with no attitude,” says Terry, a psychotherapist. A few weeks later, a handful of friends gathered at her home. In attendance: Susan Goldman, 63, a community organizer; Nikki Goldbeck, 63, a nutritionist; and Gayle Jamison, 63, an underwater photographer. Also a member from the start was Joy Hopkins-Hausman, a therapist and an artist, who died of breast cancer last August at the age of 61. Maria DeFranco, a 57-year-old sculptor and architect, joined in 2003.

At that first gathering, the women laid down the ground rules for their project: No fancy food or refreshments were to be served (water was all that the host had to provide), no lawn mowing, and no uninvited garden critiques. “We all just wanted help with the tasks that would otherwise be overwhelming,” says Susan. “We didn’t have any sense of where it would take us.”