Jean Morgan’s Louisville garden is a combination of all three, as well as a testament to local history and a nod to butterflies, bees, birds and moths.
By Lisa Marshall
In an age when the average U.S. single-family home is 2,600 square feet and the typical yard is a blanket of thirsty grass, Jean Morgan’s flower-studded miner’s shack on the outskirts of Old Town Louisville provides a refreshing portal into a simpler time.
“I have the littlest house on the smallest lot on the shortest street in town,” she proudly says as she tours a visitor around her historic 900-foot abode and the postage-stamp lot she’s transformed into an eye-popping spectacle of color over the past 43 years.
In this case, the gardener is as colorful as the garden. She’s clad in a vintage pink-and-white checkered shirt, white capris, and sandals that show off a slightly faded honeybee tattoo. Her eyes are impossibly blue and the curls beneath her black sun visor are golden blonde, making it tough to determine her age (which she politely declines to share). But her wild, whimsical garden reveals the story of a long, rich life and a deep reverence for those who came before her.
“People have given me so many plants over the years,” she says, pointing to a patch of coral-colored hens and chicks her neighbor Gracie gave her back in the ’70s, a stand of red roses her late husband gave her in the ’80s, and a weathered wagon donated by a friend. “You look at all these things and you think of those people. It’s delightful.”
The home, designated a historic landmark in 2013 by the Historic Preservation Commission, was built in 1942 by a Hungarian coal miner named Joe Restas.
As the story goes, Restas asked the landowner if he could build a cabin on a 25-foot-wide sliver at the edge of his large lot. The landowner kindly obliged and Restas got to work, erecting a 225-square-foot house with a 210-square-foot attached garage that extended slightly (about 3 feet) past the 25-foot boundary he was allowed. (The owners let it slide.) “I’m sure he just stepped that 25 feet off,” guesses Morgan as she lovingly flips through old pictures of the shack’s early days. “Can’t you just see these guys out there in their bib overalls stepping it off?”
Morgan and her then-husband Tom arrived in the Miner’s Field neighborhood a quarter-century later, renting an apartment catty-corner from the Restas house for about 80 bucks a month, working as schoolteachers, and getting to know and love the many old-time miners living out their days there.
[pp_gallery gallery_id="10110" width="180" height="180"]“I used to see Joe walking uptown. He was very slight,” Morgan recalls, wishing she’d known him better in his younger, healthier days. When Restas moved into a local nursing home, Morgan brought him pasta from the nearby Blue Parrot and homemade pizzelle cookies.
When he passed away and his house came up for sale in the early ’70s, she bought it, converting the tiny, low--ceilinged garage into a bedroom for a grand total living space of 435 feet. She raised bees for honey and chickens for eggs in the backyard (the city later shut her down because of a livestock ordinance), but in those early days there was no money to buy plants.
“When we were first married I would buy a can of tomato soup for 14 cents and Tom would grab some crackers and that would be our dinner,” she recalls. “We had nothing. Gracie would give me whatever extra plants she had and I would stick them in the ground.” So did the sweet old gal down on the corner, and the friendly old-timer up the road, and soon her barren patch of dirt was shaping up to be something quite extraordinary. As they traded plants and stories over the fence, Morgan learned a lot about Louisville’s history.
“You know they used to call this place Liquorville,” she whispers with a chuckle. “Louisville was wet when Boulder was dry, so all the students would come here.” After she and Tom divorced, Morgan remained, adding a modest living room to the house in the ’80s and spending much of her free time hands-deep in the soil.
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Native and Loving It
Today, swallowtails, dragonflies, honeybees, songbirds and snakes abound, drawn by a cornucopia of diverse, mostly native plants that have earned the garden a “Backyard Wildlife Habitat” certification by the National Wildlife Federation, along with a “Certified Butterfly Garden” certification by the North American Butterfly Association.
“You can catch just as much color in the early spring there as you can in the late summer,” says Janet Chu, coauthor of Butterflies of the Colorado Front Range. “That is pretty unusual to keep (a garden) in blossom all that time. The birds remember so they keep stopping by.” So do many human visitors, who come on garden tours or just can’t help but peek over the weathered picket fence to spot what Morgan calls “the spectacle of the garden.” (She always invites them in.) “The spectacle is where the latest bloom is,” she explains. “Every day there’s something new.”
Proudly self-taught, Morgan takes her gardening tips from nature, keenly paying attention to what plants grow best in shade versus sun as she hikes the hillsides. She plants in color-coordinated clusters—purple verbena, cleome and echinacea here, yellow evening primrose there, orange milkweed and red yucca over there—because that’s the way the butterflies like it. Morgan also visits local garden centers throughout the season, augmenting her already abundant collection with things that bloom at various times. “I’m like an old drunk going back to the bar again and again,” she jokes.
Perhaps the most charming elements of her garden are the historical artifacts that seem to sprout from the soil. Her aromatic gas plant (aka white dittany) grows next to a weathered antique sign that reads “Welcome to Louisville: Drive Carefully.” A rusted green Texas Rangerette Special bicycle has hens and chicks growing inside the spokes and moss rose spilling from the basket. Her thriving strawberry patch lives beneath an antique bed frame she painted white and enclosed with fencing to keep the squirrels out.
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And then there’s her pride and joy: “Have you met Barney Bazooka DeChomp the Third?” she asks, pointing to a hippopotamus made from a claw-foot tub for the body, old coal shovels for the jaws, and railroad spikes for the teeth.
She also gets a chuckle out of a cookie jar she installed in a nearby garden bed. The jar—a corpulent woman—is inscribed with the phrase “happily dying of chocolate.” Morgan encourages Ms. Chocolate in that pursuit by placing wadded chocolate wrappers around her. “Passersby often pick up the wrappers, though, because they think they’re trash someone accidentally dropped here,” she says with a laugh.
Before the tour is over, she points out an antique door that hangs inside—a sort of shrine to her predecessor and the other miners who worked in the area. The door belonged to one of the eight miners who were killed in the deadly explosion of the nearby Monarch Mine in 1936. When the miner’s house was torn down decades later, Morgan asked if she could have the door.
Now it’s adorned with old mining photos, headlamps, other memorabilia, and—of course—a photo of Joe Restas. “I have such respect for the old guard,” Morgan says. “They were hardworking people and their lives were simple.”
You could say the same of Morgan. “If I won the lottery, I’d give the money all away and I would still live in my little house with my little garden,” she says. “That’s how much I love this place.”