Grandma & Grandpa's Garden
DescriptionIn 1939 my grandparents, Earl and Cordelia (Delie) Warnock, married and purchased a small post-war cape cod in the D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. The home was typical of the era – a modest 2-bedroom brick home with little panache, but much promise for the future. The house sat on a on a flat grassy 7,500 square foot plot that echoed the house - a humble canvas waiting for their personal stamp. Originally, they planned to expand their garden by purchasing the adjoining plot, but my grandmother fell ill soon after they married and spent much of that first year bedridden. She eventually recovered (the illness was never diagnosed) but the setback had left their purse strings tight, and they decided to make the most of their small sunny footprint.
The green thumb lay squarely on my grandfather’s hand. A farm boy from Ohio, Earl had grown up tending plants and animals, and when he moved to Washington D.C. to work for the U.S. Post Office, he brought his love of gardening with him. Back home in Ohio, gardens were first and foremost designed to be productive, but he was determined the garden in his new Bethesda homestead would be an object of beauty. Delie, a cosmopolitan girl from Chevy Chase, had no horticultural knowledge, but loved Earl dearly and became his faithful steward. She followed his lead, and together they transformed their plain parcel into a lush retreat that would serve as creative incubator, community hub, and family respite for the next 62 years.
They began by laying out beds along the perimeter and foundation, and three circular beds in the backyard. Earl knew the secret to a flourishing garden was a strong foundation and set to working the soil. Determined to break the hard Maryland clay, he used family trips to Ohio to cart back sawdust from his great uncle Taylor’s sawmill and manure in the trunk of the car, and after a rather smelly ride, resolvedly turned these valuables into the soil. Years later, when the garden was established, he would liberally share cuttings and transplants, but was careful to remind everyone they couldn’t lay a hand on the soil. Dirt was grandpa’s gold.
The garden was an exercise in thrift, diversity, and clever innovation. Earl built the picket fence and arbors that encircled the backyard using a hacksaw and shipping crates acquired for free from the local grocer. He and Delie filled the beds with an assortment of shrubs and perennials that reminded him of home in Ohio and interlaced exciting new cultivars that had not previously been available out in the rural farmland. Azaleas, lilac, bridal veil spiraea, peonies, phlox, daisies, and spring bulbs filled the beds to overflowing, and roses scrambled all the way to the second story windows. As a vestige of the productive farm life, Earl had envisioned a sprawling orchard that would canopy the yard in soft flowers in spring and provide an abundant harvest come fall, but my grandmother decided one tree was enough. Always clever, he sourced a tree with 8 malus varieties grafted to a single trunk. That apple tree served as a climbing gym for my mother and her brother, and its bounty fed children, neighbors, and friends. As a small child, I recall gathering the fallen and spotted leftovers for “apple and clover soup,” serving my make-believe delicacy to my obliging grandmother on picnics under the apple tree’s expansive branches.
From its inception, the garden was a place to connect. Members of a local garden society, Delie and Earl were a staple on the community garden tour. Even on non-tour days, passersby would knock on the door to ask if they might take a look around the garden. My grandparents would happily drop what they were doing and welcome the visitors, delighting in the opportunity to share their knowledge, their home, and a clipping or two. As their family grew, the garden became the preferred venue for birthdays, Easter egg hunts, and the backdrop for family photos. The sprawling apple tree was a haven from the summer sun for me and the neighborhood children, who reimagined it as a castle, a jungle, a boat sailing across the pacific.
The garden was a place where anyone was welcome, not only to visit, but to share in the practice of gardening. After returning from work, Earl and Delie would tend the garden together, pruning, watering, and planting until the sun set. As a child, my mother used hand shears to trim the grass around the stone boarders in the jagged spots the push mower would not reach. When I was a child, my grandmother outfitted me with my own tiny watering can, taught me how to start impatient seeds under glass jars in the bed borders, and allowed me to assist in painting the arbors (and famously, my grandfather’s pants). When visitors admired a plant, they would almost always receive quick lesson in growing conditions and a cutting for the road. In this fashion, my grandparents shared their love of gardening with all those around them. In 2001, long after my grandfather had passed away and my grandmother could no longer maintain the property, the house had to be sold, and friends and neighbors came by to take home a piece of the garden that had so inspired them.
The many hours spent with my grandparents in their garden have had a lasting impact on me both personally and professionally. A deep appreciation for gardens inspired me to pursue a career in landscape architecture, where I continued to see the importance of green spaces not only on individuals, but communities. Although the international park projects I’ve worked on have been far larger in scope, they carry many of the same messages as that original plot on Glenwood Rd. Public gardens can help individuals lower stress and improve physical and mental wellbeing, they can reflect the history and culture of a region, and they can provide an arena for diverse groups of people to congregate, interact, and build a sense of belonging.
In my own backyard, I’ve learned that the garden is a creative outlet, a place to experiment and play. My career has taken me to many new homes around the country, and in each I’ve had the chance to dive into a new habitat, learn new plants, and design and redesign new spaces. From cold frames in upstate New York, to xeriscaping in Tucson, AZ, and back to hydrangeas and roses DC, each backyard has given me a new canvas to design. Some experiments thrived while others failed, but my grandparents taught me that the planning, digging, and tending is the fun part. Most of all, I’ve learned the garden is a place to connect. My own gardens have hosted countless gatherings, ignited conversations, and been parceled out to friends when I’ve had to move on to a new location. Working the garden with friends and family has allowed me to build memories and create a sense of place imbued with shared experience. While my grandparents garden exists now only in old photographs, each time I turn the soil, admire a striking bloom, or pause for lunch under the arc of a gracious apple tree, I’m reminded of the joy Delie & Earl created in and through their garden, and am thankful they sparked that joy in me.
-Story contributed by Heather B.