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From teaching to farming

By Marsha Morrow
Monadnock Ledger Staff


Maggie Sauvain relaxes with an early-morning mug of coffee on her second-story screened-in porch. Sunlight, the outdoor room’s natural thermostat, in no time cuts the chill.

In the backyard of the home she and her husband, Ron Lucas, moved into more than a decade ago, corpulent dark-colored hogs with light “belts” of fur chew and sniff, grunt, bark as they bump up against each other. Darting back and forth, some running in circles, several piglets from different litters follow close behind.

“We have five big Hampshire pigs, four litters of piglets and a boar named Nemo,” said Sauvain, 61.

She and Lucas raise chickens, as well, about a dozen sheep and a ram named Bosco on 40 acres of land they live on in a secluded spot off Driscoll Road. A sign at the entrance welcomes visitors.

“We sell the piglets that people raise for meat or use for breeding. We barter the eggs for milk, and raise the lambs for the Easter market,” she said. “This year, we sold five lambs to a woman who wanted a flock.”

The animals are raised on a nonmedicated diet; the ground is free of insecticides and weed killers. “I raise my plants the same way. I try to raise them as naturally as possible,” said Sauvain.

Slowly over the 17 years they’ve lived in Greenfield, Lucas, who restores old barns and houses by trade, and Sauvain cut up the wood from their forests to build barns and an apartment for guests and their children.

A special-education teacher for more than 32 years, Sauvain decided to change careers more than five years ago. She and Lucas built a 17-by-44-foot greenhouse, cleared a section of the forest and began planting perennials.

Soon, Sauvain hung a sign and began advertising her new business: Stonegate Farm and Flowers.

A wide swath of pastureland in front of the family house has been transformed into a showcase of perennial gardens dotted with wild violets, brick paths, places to sit and rows and rows of potted plants. Offsetting this are shaded areas where stonewalls serve as a backdrop for beds of hostas and astilbes, pink and purple lamium, green-white Solomon’s seal and purple ajuga.

“I’ve always wanted to do something with plants,” she said. “I’ve always been really interested in growing them. My family always had gardens, and I took botany courses when I was at the University of Michigan.”

On her way last week to an annual plant sale hosted by the Society Row, a composite group of plant societies, Sauvain was planning to take her favorite succulents. “It’s a big spread that takes place rain or shine,” she said. “I have about 15 or 16 different types of succulents that are hardy, and other perennials.”

When she started on her new venture Sauvain intended to grow and sell unusual annuals, as well, but she said, “The cost of heating the greenhouse was prohibitive. Perennials can be started inside and grown outside.”

Growing and selling makes up only one part of Stonegate Farm and Flowers, for Sauvain is also a landscape consultant and a plant lecturer. Last week, she spent several hours in New Ipswich, plotting out a flowering garden plan with a couple.

She doesn’t grow a lot of shrubs but shows customers catalogs with large varieties, tells them which would grow or work best on their property, and offers them advice.

“I like to walk around find out what the homeowners like, and then I either lay the plants out or if they want, I will plant them,” she said. “I like to work with clients, so that they can learn how to take care of their gardens themselves when we’re finished.”

It was time that ultimately led to Sauvain’s decision to change from teaching to cultivating plants. She found that she no longer could devote the same time to both. Besides, she was ready for the new venture.

A special education teacher at alternative schools in New York State for 18 years, she moved to New Hampshire in the mid 1980s. She taught for a year in the Mascenic School District, and then moved over to Keene High School where she taught individual students.

“At ConVal I was one-on-one with a severely autistic woman for six years, and for two years I was with another student. When they graduated, I was a learning disabilities English teacher, mostly teaching reading skills,” she said.

Far from breaking away completely, Sauvain is still actively connected to the high school. By coordinating with ConVal’s School to Work Coordinator Mary Lou O’Neil, she works with students at Stonegate and continues to help the high school’s landscaping committee with the gardens in front of the high school building.

“Some students from the cross-country team are on that committee,” she said. “They’ve been doing it as part of their community service requirement for the past two years.”

Sauvain added, “I like seeing the students and staying involved a bit.”

Between the very part-time teaching, lecturing to garden clubs, the town Historical Society and full-time landscaping and plant propagation at one time for retailers such as Home Depot and Agway her days are full. She currently supplies Bursey’s farm stand and garden center, and every year she lays out a garden display in Keene for the annual garden show held to benefit Home Health Care, Hospice and Community Services.

“I feel like I’m doing an important job, because people are doing gardening more and more for recreation,” said Sauvain who adds, “I like being my own boss. I can go and visit my grandkids as much as I want to, plant as much as I want to, and make my own decisions about using my time and energy.”

Thursday, May 26, 2005