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When Everyone Had A Garden

by Marcella Teplitz |
Grandmother Henrietta Brown and aunts Clara Howell and Marcella Brown

I can’t remember a time growing up when I was not surrounded by beautiful flora. From a very young age, I was immersed in flowers, vegetables and beautiful trees. As they grew, so did I.

My parents owned a modest home but we were fortunate to also have a good-sized yard on all four sides of the house. Additionally, they also owned a vacant lot across the street. It was primarily devoted to strawberries in the summer and watermelon later in the summer and fall.

Grandmother Henrietta Brown and aunts Clara Howell and Marcella Brown

The lot was bounded by a row of peonies that bloomed every spring. Behind it were the railroad tracks, which sometimes brought tramps to our back door for a sandwich or to the watermelon patch to liberate one of my dad’s prize watermelons!

The perimeter of the house was planted with many different flowers and flowering shrubs, which my mother cared for all season. First to greet us were the tulips, quickly followed by beautiful bleeding hearts, spirea and lilacs. We had a small cherry tree that produced beautiful blooms, followed by delicious fruit.

Unfortunately, the tree grew on the property line we shared with the neighbor’s driveway. One day, my father cut down the tree. When I asked why, he said the neighbor claimed it was hers when it bloomed but said it was ours when the cherries fell in her driveway and got her Buick’s tires dirty. She also claimed the two giant elm trees on the property line until it was time to rake leaves in the fall. Then, the trees and leaves were my father’s.

The elm trees were beautiful and we had three more elsewhere on the property, but they all fell victim to the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease which denuded so much of the landscape in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite my father’s efforts to save them with every home remedy that came along, he was defeated. No one was spared.

My current home also suffered the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease. One of my neighbors described moving to the neighborhood in 1950 and seeing big elms lining both sides of Randolph Avenue with tree tops touching. She said it was like being in a cathedral.

My father had a tomato garden in the back yard. After a long, hot day at the factory, he would come home, grab the salt shaker, disappear into the tomato patch, select one perfect tomato and, after dousing it with salt, eat it where he stood. What a look of contentment. Now, I do the same but with cherry tomatoes and no salt. Not quite the same.

All the neighbors had gardens, too – some for beauty, some for necessity to augment their food supply. One Italian lady planted every inch of her small yard in vegetables, raised chickens and had a hand pump for water in her kitchen. Another neighbor had beautiful round beds of pansies in the spring scattered through his big lawn. Directly across from our home was a garden filled with perfectly tended vegetables and many big cherry trees. The cherries were for the birds. I was the only child in the neighborhood allowed to pick as many cherries as I wanted.

Woman in front of flowering bushHow could these memories not influence me? My devotion to gardening took a while, since I was immersed in my very busy, sometimes 24/7 career on the Peoria Police Department. I still work as a private detective but I have committed time for myself and for gardening, which is very important to me.

My present home is in a 100-year-old plus Victorian with a beautiful wraparound porch, as well as a sunroom out back. These are my favorite places to be. Inspiration is always present in both locations. My home is in Peoria’s oldest historic district. Fortunately, most of the neighbors are gardening enthusiasts, as well.

Our neighborhood is the Randolph Roanoke Historic District and Residential Association. The architecture and enormous trees provide a dramatic backdrop for stunning floral displays. We own and maintain a private park, which contains our butterfly garden. Additionally, we own and maintain the decorative flower baskets mounted on our five-globe Victorian light fixtures. This month, we will be dividing and sharing our perennials and devoting time to a new pocket park for a community vegetable garden.

Gardening has something for everyone. The physical act of digging your hands into the damp earth and inhaling the aroma relaxes your cares and allows you to enjoy life. Creating a garden and caring for it throughout the season provides a certain satisfaction or, in failure, reason to say, “Better luck next year!”

For those who cannot garden themselves, I suggest a walk or drive through a public park or beautifully landscaped neighborhood. Spring and summer bring carloads of elderly people to our neighborhood. We so enjoy sharing.

Another way to enjoy gardening is to read about it. Famous gardeners such as Gertrude Jekyll wrote extensively on her experiences. My new favorite, “Writing the Garden: A Literary Conversation Across Two Centuries” by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, is a treasure trove of beautiful prose by women who write as well as they garden. Something to aspire to.

Marcella Teplitz 

Marcella Teplitz is a former Peoria City Councilwoman,
former Peoria Police officer, current president of the
Randolph-Roanoke Residential Association, and an
avid inner-city gardener.

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