A New Garden

My dad and Phyllis live in Raleigh, North Carolina in a lovely home on a large, pie-shaped lot at the end of a cul de sac.  Because Daddy values lush, green mown grass over gardens, the lawn is expansive.  Graceful but narrow, planting beds filled with azaleas line the front of the house while gardenias and roses soften the back.  There the yard stretches to the edge of shady woods filled with skinny pines and tall oaks.  Along the edge of the woods, they have grown large camellias, dogwoods, a fig tree and a variety of smaller flowering shrubs.  In places where the sun shines through the canopy, they experiment with many bulbs, perennials, and exotic plants.  My dad’s 89-year-old green thumb even coaxes a dwarf banana tree back to life each year.

Several years ago, after losing trees to a hurricane, Phyllis tried her hand at a more traditional perennial garden.  She carved out a space, still in partial the shade of pines and oaks, laid a small circular path using slate stepping stones, and installed Cryptomeria at the back as screening.  She planted astilbe, a plethora of hostas, peonies, holly and river ferns, and a sampling of the natives that were commercially available to her.  Daddy tried poppies and oriental lilies.

The little jewel box of a garden succeeded for a time. Its owners installed a double swing next to the garden and found respite there on hot afternoons, lazy evenings, and during breaks from mowing that BIG lawn. Then, there was the war of the voles followed by drought and water rationing.  Although many of the plants suffered and some succumbed, the trees continued to grow shading all the survivors.

DISCLAIMER: At this point, I must confess that my knowledge of the chronology, plans, plants, and problems of this garden are clouded by the distance between Texas and North Carolina, infrequent first hand observation, and my memory.  However, the memories of events of this spring are crystal clear.

Phyllis and Daddy decided to have several large trees removed: oaks and pines.  They were tired of the prolific leaf drop all fall and winter long, and Phyllis pondered the idea of a sunnier, replanted garden.  Cutting mature trees is hard for Central Texans to understand.  It takes us too long to grow them.  However, in North Carolina, I guess a forest can sprout up overnight. What’s wrong with North Carolinians anyway? Is it ironic that they sell prickly pear cactus in pots at the Farmer’s Market and “experts” tell gardeners not to prune lantana? The trees were history!

Then, Daddy was diagnosed with cancer.  He began a six week round of radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery.  Three weeks into the regimen, he became critically ill.  The doctors assured us that the event was not a result of the cancer treatment. However, he underwent emergency surgery to remove a section of his small intestine, and remained in the hospital for many weeks.  We knew then that it was going to be a six week recuperation followed by another major surgery and more recuperation.

As concerned as I was about my father, I was equally worried about Phyllis, his sole caregiver.  Every time I spoke with her, I encouraged her to take care of herself as well as Daddy.  As I’ve said many times, gardens are restorative and therapeutic, so for Mother’s Day (She’s not my mom or even like a step-mom but the closest thing to a sister that I have ever had!) I sent her a gift certificate to a mail order nursery.  I planted the seed of the idea to take ownership of the perennial garden and give her something to focus on other than her spouse’s illness. David and I made plans to visit Raleigh in early June after school dismissed for the summer.  We could spend some quality time together before the surgery, and I would stay until after the procedure.  I volunteered to help Phyllis with her garden project, too.  The seed germinated.

Daddy looked good; he had gained most of the lost twenty pounds back and even gone back to the gym for some exercise.  We felt more positive about the next surgery.  Phyllis wanted to work on her garden.  She had been thinking about a center, focal point for the space and talked about the possibility of using a rose.  As I drank coffee in the sunroom that first morning, my eye was drawn to a huge, antique fountain hiding in the woods.  It was a perfect focal point.  That day Phyllis and I went “window shopping.”  She wasn’t sure what plants she wanted, and I wasn’t sure what was available in Raleigh.  We checked out the big box stores and the local nurseries while David stayed behind and helped with some yard projects Daddy and Phyllis had been unable to complete.  We made a long list of plant possibilities and discussed moving the fountain to her garden. 

In the afternoon, back at the garden, we decided the fountain belonged in the center, and we asked David to help us move it.  What a tremendous job transporting it proved to be!  It broke down into three main sections: the pedestal, basin, and statuary.  It took the three of us and a heavy duty dolly to lug it piece by piece across the lawn down a gentle slope to its new home.  Whew! We leveled and tamped the dirt. As we began to lift segments into position, we realized that each of the three main pieces could be separated into smaller parts. We should have read Fountain Moving for Dummies. We carefully installed it checking level on each tier.  It was perfect.  A garden was growing.

The antique fountain "focal point"

The antique fountain "focal point"

The next morning, David left on a business trip, and Phyllis and I went plant shopping.  We brought the first purchases home, placed them in the garden, and then continued the shopping spree by checking out the Farmer’s Market (where they offer prickly pear cactus in pots in exchange for money).  Raleigh is surprisingly hot and humid even to a Texan, and that afternoon seemed typical.  We delayed planting until the next morning.  Before the heat became oppressive the following morning, we planted everything.  Of course, design holes needed to be filled.  Another shopping opportunity presented itself.  We talked Daddy into going with us and made a few more purchases.  At some point we made a mulch run and one more trip to a wonderful local nursery.  The day before Daddy’s surgery we mulched and added finishing touches. Perfection.  A garden had blossomed.

Echinaceae (white and purple coneflowers), hydrangea

Echinaceae (white and purple coneflowers), hydrangea

A surviving hosta, Phlox davidii (white), Yarrow, Pentas (an annual)

A surviving hosta, Phlox davidii (white), Yarrow, Pentas (an annual)











Although I loved every minute of the process, it was back hurting work.  I don’t toil that hard in my own garden, and I don’t do mulch!  Ever!  It stormed during the night.  We left the house in the dark to have Daddy at the hospital by 5:30 for a 7:30 A.M. surgery.  All went well, and unbelievably he was awake and chatting with us in the ICU that afternoon.  After a long day, we drove home at dusk to find the fountain over and in pieces.  Fortunately, only a small pedestal that rested under the statue broke.  We decided that the rain must have washed dirt from under the back side of the base and caused it to tip over.  If one thing had to go awry on this particular day, we were glad that it was only a fallen fountain.

This story ends happily.  Daddy is quickly recuperating.  The pathology on the tumor showed that it was small in size and had not spread.  The fountain has been reinstalled, but on buried concrete blocks this time. I like the new, smaller version better.  Phyllis has added several more plants to her garden and spends time there daily. The plants from the mail order nursery arrived.  I now call it My Sister’s Garden.  A garden did its work.


Salvia and Gaura (Whirling butterflies)Growth in the garden



  1. Phyllis said,

    June 28, 2009 at 8:19 PM

    The garden HAS done its work. It is my quiet time each day in the cool of the morning. Before the rigors of the day begin, I find solace walking out to the garden, weeding, deadheading, watering if necessary and “talking” to my new friends. We have butterflies visiting along with numerous bumble bees. Hummingbirds are enjoying a new smorgasbord of treats instead of just a “feeder”. Now if I can just keep the rabbits out.

    I love my new space and I love my “sister” for coming to my rescue. It is indeed “My Sister’s Garden” in many ways.

  2. Diane Brewer said,

    July 9, 2009 at 6:22 PM

    I just read this carefully and am grateful for the good report on your dad, Pat. It is also a charming story.

    Phyllis, if you read this, enjoy your time in the garden and use it to vent the inevitable frustrations in caregiving. You are wonderfully supportive and kind.

    I am also jealous that there is even morning time that invites you to poke around in the garden. Our summer is death-defying here. Ah, Canada.
    Hang in there. Diane

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