Growing to perfection

Garden: Over the years, Ruth and Donnie Othoson have added to their Eastern Shore masterpiece.

August 15, 1999|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Every year, I look at the lushly colored seed and plant catalogs and think: This year, I'll have a perfect garden. And every summer, by about this time, reality returns. I'll probably never have a perfect garden. As a substitute, I visit Ruth and Donnie Othoson's garden, a fairyland with blossoms and fronds, a fish pond, (complete with huge bullfrogs Bud, Wei and Zer), pergolas and vines.

From March through October, the Eastern Shore garden is Ruth Othoson's canvas, and she paints on it with abandon, adding some pink Nellie Moser clematis by the pergola that her son, Eric, built for her, or creating an idyllic scene with the rustic old shed she bought from a neighbor and moved to the one-acre property in Galena, Kent County.

For inspiration, she reads garden magazines and the books of a children's writer and gardener, Tasha Tudor, "though I could never duplicate what she has." She began about 10 years ago with the small backyard garden her parents had planted. (The Othosons' 18th-century house was her childhood home.) While some artists work with a completed picture in mind, others let theirs evolve.

"I pick a spot and think: 'What can I do there?' " explains Ruth, a retired department store buyer. "We started with the fish pond. Mother had made it a long time ago and it was little, so I cracked it all out and made it bigger."

The fish pond, the centerpiece in a glade of dappled light and color, is now 18 by 27 feet, with a small cascading weir at the back. Red waterlilies float along one side, and at one end, a spectacular coral water canna rises like Botticelli's Venus. Goldfish undulate through the dark water and tadpoles wriggle in the hyacinths. A broad perennial border encompasses the pond's rockbound edges. The effect is utter tranquillity.

The Othosons' garden is a partnership.

"I plan and plant and weed," explains Ruth. "Donnie prunes and mows."

Bit by bit, they have enlarged the plantings. Lush perennial borders, augmented with annuals, stretch from the natural-wood picket fence out front and wind in deep, multi-dimensional splendor around the huge magnolia tree in back. The magnolia is both a pleasure and a pain -- a pleasure because of its beauty and its perfumed blossoms, a pain because it drops leaves all season long, even while in bloom.

"Every year, I think about cutting it down," Ruth says, raking up stiff brown leaves scattered across the grass and borders like scraps of leather. "They sometimes cut the flowers when they fall."

Originally, the garden was bounded on the west by a lot -- vacant except for dilapidated chicken coops, a rampaging stand of bamboo and a 50-foot-tall pine.

"We ran out of space to plant, so we bought the lot next door," she says matter-of-factly, as though this were the only logical step.

They dug out the bamboo and shifted the chicken coops (which might be useful at some point) but left the pine tree, trimming dead limbs off the trunk, which allowed the cars to pass beneath on the new, narrowly winding drive.

The Othosons worked tirelessly that summer, planting creamy New Dawn roses to twine along the front fence, putting in oak leaf hydrangeas along the drive, painting the shed a muted red, then surrounding it with a few old pieces of fence and a mass of flowers, and decorating the outside with antique garden tools, and laying down a brick walkway lined with small boxwoods.

Thanks to Othoson's weekly visits to Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, something new blooms nearly every week from spring to fall.

"I see what they have in bloom at different times so it will be in bloom here," she says. Donnie Othoson also periodically brings home plants from his job as chief financial officer at Willey Farms, a wholesale and retail produce market in Delaware.

But not every new idea is a success.

"Sometimes I do things and they don't look right," says Ruth, "and the next year, I'll dig them up and change it."

It's a lot of work to keep this small paradise in trim. After the initial spring push, the weekly requirement is about an hour a day. Her husband shakes his head, smiling. "More," he says. The next section under consideration is behind the chicken coop property.

"We're putting up a really neat garage," he says. "And the back part we're going to leave sort of grown up for the rabbits. I want something alive back there to look at."

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