The wet leg of a 7-year-old girl sprouted above a flowerbed at 251 E. Randolf St. near Gier Park as Old Town’s Urban Garden & Patio Tour wound to a close Saturday.
The rest of Lela Durham was out of view, lolling in a backyard kiddie pool behind the garden.
Her five-year-old brother, Avery, popped into view, dripping and grinning.
“Welcome to our garden tour!” he cried.
The secret of Old Town’s garden tour is that it’s really a people tour.
Betty Durham, grandmother of the kids in the pool, pointed to a couple of ornamental rag dolls grinning in the dirt.
“Got ‘em at a garage sale,” she said. “Freaked out my grand babies. No eyes! I had to paint them in.”
Sprawling or cramped, chic or cheap, with or without gnomes, the diversity of Saturday’s tour was glorious.
Of course, there were dazzlers, like the “Key West North” crammed into tour organizer Michael Beebe’s yard at 216 E. North St., next to a century-old service station. A few doors down, the rose-covered arbor and tended beds of the historic Turner-Dodge Mansion scratched the civic landmark itch.
Awesome, odd, and ordinary, the gardens are all rooted in memories and life stories their owners were happy to share.
Gardeners Alex Walker and Pat Ketner crammed a rock-lined pond, a vegetable garden packed on the “square foot gardening” principle, and heaps of flowers into a small backyard downtown backyard at 311 W. Maple St., working wonders in little over a year.
It was one of the newer gardens on the tour, but they’ve made it feel like it’s always been there.
Walker rubbed a tansy herb thoughtfully between his fingers and savored the bitter tang of his childhood.
“My grandmother had these when I was growing up,” he said. “I’m 66 and I’ve started reflecting on things more.”
Kindly beekeeper Joe Droste and his wife, Pat, at 1813 Lake Lansing Road, treasure the venerable hydrangeas bobbing next to the garage, with heads the size of basketballs. They come from the homestead where Joe grew up over 70 years ago, in Westphalia.
Betty Durham has heirloom peonies she has been “toting from hither and yon” for decades and a tobacco plant from her grandmother.
“She died in her 90s, and I that was 20 years ago,” Durham said. “I got a slip of it from her daughter.”
But there are limits to Durham’s family reverence. She pointed to a flowery patch that used to house a raised bed for vegetables.
“One of my family members said, ‘Did you bury your sister out there?’” Durham said.
No. Durham’s sister, Mary Ann Cooper, shares the garden chores with Durham and co-hosted the tour.
Durham belied the stereotype of the never-satisfied, eternally fussing gardener. “I like it” is her favorite thing to say.
She cried out at the sight of some nonconforming purple alyssum among its tiny, delicate white sisters.
“Well I’ll be darned!” she said. “And it’s growing right under the dryer vent.”
Her pride twinkled more brightly than any of the blossoms. She hustled to across the lawn to show off a small diagonal corner bed, a micro-kingdom ruled by a towering variegated yucca.
“I like it! It has finesse,” she said.
In the mild air and July sunshine, hundreds of visitors enjoyed getting aesthetic whiplash from the wildly diverging gardening styles.
Across the street from Durham and Cooper’s house, Sam and Joan Pardee at 2518 Gary Ave. had candy on the table for visitors, as if it were Halloween. Their long, stately sunken garden is 39 years in the making, big enough to absorb plenty of gnomes and whimsy without losing its stateliness.
Sam Pardee, who was born in this house, presided on the patio, telling stories of the old interurban railway that ran behind their lot.
Closer to Old Town, Beebe’s backyard oasis was the tour’s biggest revelation.
“When I moved here 27 years ago, there was nothing here,” Beebe said.
Now everything is here.
“It’s tiny and intense,” he admitted.
By 3 p.m., over 70 people had made their way through a dappled maze of giant tree lilies and chest-high beds crammed with unlikely tropical colors, stopping to ogle a stout 30-year-old cycad, a prehistoric plant that looks like a palm tree. Even experienced gardeners were moved many times to ask, “what is this thing?”
To swing from maximalist to minimalist, you only had to cross Turner Street, where rare access to the exclusive-looking salon and spa of Matthew Ryan gave the tour a chic air.
No gnomes or signs saying “don’t poop on the perennials” here.
Ryan’s fiancé, attorney Mark Clouse, happily gave tours of the renovated railway depot wedged into upper Old Town, a stylish rehab job that didn’t seem to involve much at all in the way of gardens. Clouse never said a thing about any plants, but the immaculate salon and a spectacularly paneled garage adjoining it looked smashing.
Other gardens on the tour weren’t even on the ground. Two patio gardens overlooked the Grand River within the spray of the North Lansing Dam spillway.
There were many more micro-worlds to discover: the ravenous koi and mighty oak tree at Diane Sanborn’s Cozy Koi, the mini-golf-meets-Serengeti rockpile jungle at Preuss Pets, the peaceful performance space tucked into four walls behind the Old Town General Store, the tall grasses and gorgeous sculpture of the Robert Busby Memorial Garden near the Brenke Fish Ladder, the shady backyard of Penny Gardner and Marilyn Bowen at 1035 Seymour Street.
The tour’s outlier was the Drostes’ garden, to the northeast of Old Town, not far from the concrete commercial crust of sprawling malls and Wal-Mart.
But when Beebe beheld the Drostes’ farm-like rows of flowers and vegetables, complete with a rustic gazebo, he talked them into joining the tour.
A look of curiosity and wonder never left Joe Droste’s weathered face as he spent the afternoon listening to his visitors’ stories and telling his own.
He paused on one round to admire a gorgeous jade plant.
“Want to know how to propagate a jade?” he asked. He pinched a sprig that looked like a big green drop of water and pressed it into a planter full of rich soil. Gardens are about the future as well as the past.