Ever-Changing Garden

April 12, 2010

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Linden, CA | Seventy-eight-year-old Betty Mathis says it’s time to slow down, to curtail more of her 150-variety irises. Even fifty irises are work, as they need dividing every three years. Planted over time, Betty recorded the name and dates of each species on a simple pencil sketch she drew of the yard, divided into E, F, and G sections. Betty may be cutting back on irises, but walk around her one-third-acre garden and there are few signs of decline elsewhere.  

The garden emerged in phases after Betty and her husband built their two-story home in 1960 on one acre. Ten years later, when Betty spotted a couple of orphan poppies near the oak tree in their field, she decided to save them before they were disk under. Betty’s plant-saving measure eventually spread a sea of carroty blooms that flutter in the slightest breeze among her garden beds and in the surrounding field. “You never have to replant them because there is always going to be one coming up someplace,” Betty said, gazing at her poppy field.     

These unusual pink poppies came up in Betty's yard.


Betty has loved flowers since she was big enough to walk around her grandparents’ garden of dahlias and sweet peas. “It was my job,” Betty reminisces, “to pick off the sweet peas. That took an hour or two.” There were so many that every neighbor had bouquets. Betty’s grandfather contributed his flourishing blooms to corncobs! He claimed to dig a trench that he filled with corncobs covered with dirt before planting sweet peas seeds on top. “My grandfather was Polish so he had a since of humor.” Betty said with a grin, “I don’t know how much of this was bull.”  

Absent in Betty’s rambling beds are corncobs and formality. Instead, lapping pathways made of railroad ties are Gerber daisies, larkspur, bachelor buttons, daffodils, forget-me-nots, petunias, roses, hollyhocks, foxgloves, camellias, azaleas, hydrangeas. Betty starts most of her plants from seed. Ordering from her favorite catalogs (Park and Burpee) every year, Betty sows four to six flats covered with domes with overhead lights until they germinate. February or March, she puts them into the ground.  

“There’s no secret to success here,” Betty said. “Plants go in wherever I feel like putting them.” If a plant doesn’t fit into the mix of neighboring flowers, Betty moves it to another location. Betty does practice composting, using natural chicken or steer manure, and deep watering twice weekly when needed. When asked how she controls weeds, Betty replied, “Mr. Right and Mr. Left,” as she tossed up her right and then her left hand into the air.  

Commuters oftentimes stop at the end of the day to take pleasure in Betty’s garden. Others slip seed packets or a note of gratitude in Betty’s mailbox. One man, whose yard is bare, took photos that he enlarged and then covered a window in his house so he could look at flowers.  

Although Betty plans to cut back on irises, her love of flowers remains constant. After all, there are hundreds of low-maintenance horticultural choices, like Betty’s newest interest in lilies and peonies. Copyright © 2010 Dianne Marie Andre  

White Peonies


Betty Mathis


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