Cathie Chenowith, Lily Randall, and Chris Roll share a common green thumb. And not just any metaphorical green thumb, but one that has launched a gardening friendship that continues to bloom in rolling color between the last snows of winter through the first frost of fall.
The story opens in 1989, when Chris and Cathie Chenowith bought a home east of Washington School on Parnell Street.
“It came with gardens largely focused on bulbs that annually bloomed tulips and daffodils,” said Cathie. “The brick flower boxes in front of the house stood four feet tall. They had to go, but fortunately the bulbs were easy to rescue.”
It was the rescued bulbs that lit a passion for flowers. “You can literally plant a never-ending variety of tulips and never exhaust all the colors and textures,” sad Cathie.
But she soon wanted to move beyond bulbs into other plants that bloom annually. She and her husband took gardening classes offered by Michigan State University’s agricultural extension office.
The hook was set.
The Chenowiths bought all the recommended books on how to not just plant flowers, but curate a garden to spans seasons into years. The first big hurtle was discovering what lies beneath Parnell. There’s a nutrient-poor, water-resistant clay just below the grass line.
“I had to dig three feet down and fill with loam, most of which come from the city compost pile off Easterday,” said Chris Chenowith. “The downside with compost is that you plant whatever comes with the soil . . . weeds, wildflowers and all.”
Aside from having to keep ahead with weeding, the soil did the trick.
Then it was time to introduce the flowers, shrubs, and trees that aren’t just planted, but planned to convey color and support wildlife.
Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds need to be attracted by flowers irresistible to pollinators. Birds need to associate your garden with a steady stream of berries to sustain them through winter. Most important in the planning is the gardeners’ payoff of color and texture that spools throughout the year like movements in a symphony.
“We planted bushes and flowers that are first to bloom in early spring, the ones that grow and open through summer and then hold up in color to the first frost of fall,” said Cathie.
All this activity caught attention of Lily Randall. She and her husband, Ken, were renting a house right next door.
“I saw what the Chenowiths were doing and felt inspired,” said Lily. Cathie, of course, was full of suggestions and relished a new gardening friend off whom she could bounce ideas.
That collaboration, in turn, caught the eye of Lily’s neighbor, Chris Roll.
So, beginning in 2006 the trio met at least three times a week to discuss and implement all the latest horticultural discoveries. Chris and Lily installed planned gardens in their backyards. Chris Roll went even further to convert her front lawn into one big flower garden.
“My sister in Minneapolis was a master gardener,” said Randall. “She heard of our work and brought over her favorite Minnesota annuals. I gave Chris and Cathie whatever I couldn’t fit into my beds.”
“We’re far enough north for many of these to take,” recalled Cathie. “That’s how to experiment with early and late bloomers. Transplant and see what takes hold. Some flowers even prefer longer summers than we have up here.”
Then in 2014, a handoff of a sort happened. When the Chenowiths found a house in the country near Pickford, Cathie asked if Lily and Ken wanted to buy the Parnell property.
“The house was a perfect size for us, and then there were the flower beds we’d all worked on over the years,” said Lily. “How could I resist?”
“We were so relieved that someone in the friendship would serve as a caretaker for the garden we all built and loved,” said Cathie.
Eight years on, the friendship gardens on Parnell host at least 50 varieties of flowers and flowering bushes, not to mention the varieties of trees that include cherry and apple.
Kathy and Chris Chenowith come into town whenever they can to help Lily keep up their former garden and ogle Chris Roll’s continuing creativity two doors down.
Alas, Lily’s former rental doesn’t have a garden anymore.
“I really can’t blame them,” said Lily. “Flower gardens like these take a lot of work. It’s getting harder for me as I get older. Thank goodness Cathie and Chris can help.”
What if the gardenless neighbor changes his mind?
“I know some friends and neighbors who are full of advice,” offered Cathie.