A gardener adapts to aging

 

Special to The Miami Herald

Margie Di Domenico, 82, sits on her screened back porch in Cutler Bay and sips a cup of coffee.

Outside, a sulphur butterfly lands on the bloom of a cassia tree that is as yellow as its wings. A mockingbird perches atop a flagpole to enjoy the purple fruit it has stolen from the nearby beautyberry bush. And perhaps that monarch butterfly flitting over the orange and yellow milkweed flower is looking for a place to lay its eggs.

Although Di Domenico used to lift 50-pound bags of pine mulch and climb onto the roof of the house to trim palm fronds, today her activities are more limited because her shoulders bother her. She also has trouble walking and can’t bend to weed a flower bed.

“But I still love my garden,” she says. So she and her garden have adapted to age.

Instead of caring for the yard by herself, now she calls on her friend Mara Norris of Palmetto Bay for help. The two met about four years ago in a local garden store. Her yardman trims the trees and rakes the mulch paths.

And her three living daughters, Sarah Patten, 50, of Cutler Bay; Rebecca Smith, 58, of Tamarac; and Maria Di Domenico, 60, of Colorado Springs, Colo.; as well as her 10 grandchildren and even her 14 great grandchildren, do what they can.

But this is still her domain. After all, gardening is second nature to Di Domenico who grew up in Amarillo, Texas, where her mother had a Victory Garden on the lot across the street.

“When we were little, we played around and fooled around instead of weeding like we were supposed to,” she says recalling being out in the garden from age 5.

Her mother gave her and her twin sister plots to plant whatever they wanted. Di Domenico chose dahlias. Even today there are red and yellow dahlia blooms in her garden. But these are cloth ones inserted into the ends of upright hollow pipes strategically placed throughout the yard. They offer her a handhold when she needs to support herself as she makes her way among the bushes.

That’s just one of a number of things Di Domenico has done to make her garden more hospitable to her needs.

Although she has a showy copper barometer, thermometer and clock unit hanging on her porch wall, she admits it’s too small for her to read easily. So she’s added a thermometer with large numbers that she can see from her chair across the porch. And there’s a rain gauge with oversized numbers just outside the back door so she can determine when her garden has had enough to drink.

A walker, also by the screen porch door, has a touch of rust on it but works just fine when she needs a little extra support going up and down the stairs from the porch to the garden.

At the top of the stairs is a sea green wooden bench that holds pots filled with kale and dill. Di Domenico picks them for herself and to feed her pet guinea pig Clover. “That’s a very spoiled guinea pig,” says her daughter Sarah. Because the pots are raised, Di Domenico can harvest them without bending.

In the garden, she found herself tripping over round cement stepping stones. So she had them stacked throughout the yard to create places to sit when she needs to rest.

There’s also a mesh bench, which her artistic granddaughter painted yellow with bright pink roses. And there’s a turquoise-and-white striped canvas rope chair hanging from the limbs of a Geiger tree. These give her comfortable places to enjoy her surroundings from different perspectives.

Besides plants and wildlife, there are a lot of memories in this garden. Di Domenico planted the native white Geiger in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew laid waste to her backyard and dumped two inches of water in the house.

“I’d seen a number of orange Geigers, but I was intrigued by the white one,” she says.

Although word has it that Geigers are difficult to grow in South Florida, Di Domenico’s thrives. In fact the limbs on this 30-foot-tall tree spread so far that she’s had to prop them up with four-by-fours to keep them from drooping and breaking off. Her great-grandchildren love to climb in it.

Elsewhere, she’s buried many of the family pets including dogs named Chubbs, Sam and Brutus as well as Christopher the canary. A chunk of concrete is partially buried here too. Carved into it are the words “Lou loves Margie” with a heart and the date 1985.

Di Domenico remembers the day her husband Louis finished working with some cement and dumped the excess on the side of the house. Then he did what any red-blooded male would do: He carved the couples’ names in it. There it remained until after his death when Di Domenico had it moved to this memorial area of her garden.

Although her lush garden is her refuge, it wasn’t always this way. Originally the land was covered with strawberry fields, which were cleared to build the home the family moved into in 1969. She planted grass. and there were a few periwinkles, zinnias and other “common things.” But because they raised and sold Labradors, they needed the lawn for a dog run.

But when Louis died in 1988 at age 58, Di Domenico felt she needed a change.

“Before Louis died, the garden wasn’t anything special. The work I’ve done out here is for him,” she says with tears coming into her eyes and her soft voice cracking with emotion.

Today her 125-by-75-foot lot is covered with what her friend and helper Norris calls a “mish-mash of stuff.” And most of it is very colorful and fragrant including the sweet-smelling white flowers of the begonia odorata Alba. The white blooms are set off by their distinctive yellow centers.

Rub the flowers or leaves of the patchouli plant to discover the musky odor you may remember from the 1970s. The pink blooms of the wishbone flower may remind you of snapdragons. And a rotting palm root is now home to pink pentas. “Using the root as a planter was Margie’s scathingly brilliant idea,” says Norris.

A passion vine attracts zebra longwing, Gulf fritillary and Julia Dryas butterflies to the back fence. Nearby, the Chinese Cap with its chartreuse flowers is aptly named for the conical shape of its blooms.

Two towering corn plants with purple flowers were actually houseplants that Di Domenico moved outdoors when she tired of watering them. A Philippine violet soon will sport small purple tubular flowers. “It’s easy to grow from seed,” Di Domenico says.

She’s also proud to point out the justice flamingo that will develop flowers reminiscent of those colorful birds. And she goes native with stoppers, Jamaican capers and a spicewood tree that she was given by her daughter Sarah.

Ambling through the garden, she tires quickly and that’s when Sarah helps her back to her seat on the screened porch. Her cheeks are flushed and she looks like the garden walk did her good. “I just hope that the good lord lets me die out in this backyard with a shovel in my hands,” she says.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a certified master gardener who can be reached at debhartz@att.net.

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