Feature Garden: Possessed by a Vision

01 Jun 2020

(Photo above): Goldfish frolic under the pond’s solar-powered fountain. The clay pot, called an olla, pumps water into the pond to keep the pond fresh and give the goldfish “back massages.”

This couple left no stone unturned to transform their yard into a tour-worthy garden

Text and photos by Lisa Truesdale   Anyone who attended the Festival of Flowers Garden Tour in 1999 and again in 2019 might not have recognized Wayne and Sylvia Gardner’s yard the second time around. Though it was twice included in the Longmont Symphony Guild’s fundraising event, the garden looks nothing like it did 20 years ago. Back then it was pretty sparse, and many of the trees, shrubs and flowers that were in it are long gone. Still, it was a vast improvement over what the yard looked like when the couple first purchased the circa-1910 house in 1993. At first, no one but Sylvia could see the home’s beauty, inside or out. A brick-edge driveway ran the length of the property from the front to the alley. The front yard and boulevard strip were neglected patchy grass, and the yard’s only living things were two evergreens, a peony and a lilac. Inside the house, old carpeting and dated paneling were brown, brown, brown. “My daughter-in-law thought I was ‘pos­sessed,’” Sylvia says. “And I guess I was—­possessed with a vision. The house and yard spoke to me. They captured my soul.” Sylvia’s vision was to create a quasi-­Victorian garden, sort of a “European oasis in look and feel,” but she didn’t want it to be too formal. “I prefer a mishmash look,” she explains, “not a manicured one.” She wasn’t keen on a water-hog garden either, but she didn’t want to go completely xeric.

A Work in Progress

In 1995, Wayne suggested they begin by transforming the driveway into cottage-style gardens on both sides, so they started pulling up brick, sand and road base. The ambitious project required backbreaking work over a couple of years, Sylvia says, not to mention multiple tubes of sore-­muscle ointment and countless pairs of leather gloves. Money was tight, since they were also renovating the home’s interior, so they simply planted a few trees and perennials “with no specific plan in mind.” Since they chose to be outside any time it was warmer than freezing and cooler than 90, they got more work done on the garden than the house. By 1998, they were invited to participate in the guild’s 1999 garden tour, even though “it was still just a semi-established work in progress,” Sylvia notes. After that first tour, the Gardners continued their transformative efforts, with Sylvia assuming the “manager” role and Wayne “the muscle.” The interior eventually got enough attention that the couple was able to open a bed-and-breakfast, which they operated for 10-plus years. But most of their spare time was spent outdoors, especially after they each retired from jobs at the University of Colorado Garden features gradually appeared, including a three-tier fountain, a chiminea, multiple birdbaths, a fishpond, and seating areas for relaxing and entertaining. More trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials, herbs and ground covers than one could possibly imagine now cover their front yard, side yards and backyard cottage-style garden pockets. The massive plantings were a crucial part of Sylvia’s vision—she wanted to make sure they didn’t need to devote much time to weeding or mulching. “I’m a big believer in covering and planting every bit of exposed earth,” she says. “Voilá, no need for mulch!” These days, other than fall leaf cleanup and occasional pruning, transplanting, dividing and rearranging, the garden takes care of itself, giving the couple time to fully enjoy it. Wayne installed a micro-drip watering system a few years ago, and Sylvia is delighted. “We’ve spent countless hours hand watering, and our neighbors pitched in when we were camping or vacationing,” she says, though she admits to “therapeutic hand watering” every so often.

From Santa to Soil

Although Sylvia would much rather be outside enjoying the garden, in winter her massive collection of Christmas decorations keeps her occupied. No room is left untouched, and a living room cabinet of year-round Santa Clauses is filled with figurines the couple has collected during travels worldwide. But, as soon as the garden bulbs emerge, Sylvia’s back out checking on her beloved plants, thumbing through catalogs and preparing for the growing season. “Every spring, I can’t wait to get my hands into the soil,” she says. “It smells so good, especially when it’s damp, like if it still has a thin crust of ice on it.” And she’s more than willing to host impromptu garden tours for friends, neighbors and curious passersby. “Most of the time I’m covered in dirt clods, wearing old shoes, maybe with leaves sticking out of my hair under my wobbly straw hat,” she laughs. “But I always greet fellow garden lovers with a smile and a hug.”
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