The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


June 29, 2014

25 gardens

Unpretentious Barbara York sits in a chair inside her home of 41 years, her attention drawn like a tendril to the open front door and the early sunshine beyond.

The lifelong adventurer had a recent temporary set back.

“I was weeding in the garden and fell and broke my ankle,” she says, leg propped up as it isn’t accustomed to being.

The garden is usually where Barbara, a Shady Spring resident, spends the majority of her time when not traveling the far corners of the world with husband, Vaughn York Sr.

When she says “the garden,” the retired school counselor is also using a collective term — in truth she has not one, but 25 individual gardens populating her 2 acres of land, each with a story to tell.

If Barbara’s gardens could talk to tell their stories, they’d bear a hint of an English accent — but only a hint. As far as garden themes go, in keeping with English tradition Barbara has roses, rainwater, ruins, a cemetery (for family pets) and hidden statuary within each distinct circle for character, but her taste is whimsical rather than classical — things she doesn’t mind her grandchildren rearranging from time to time.

Barbara meticulously takes to brushes and paint pots to restore them each season, hand-painting the chips and cracks on gnomes, fairies, trolls and posing children when the weather barricades her indoors. Considered kitsch to the overtly formal garden, her statues are personal — the propagation of family and travel experiences.

If formality grew in Barbara’s gardens, it would be in the form of the roses. Roses upstage in more than a few manicured nooks. Before a rose becomes beautiful, it must be free from diseased or dead wood, anything that would distract from its focus on producing new growth.

Barbara says people make the mistake with roses of planting them and then leaving them to fend for themselves.

“You have to work with roses constantly. You have to trim them and cut them back in the right places.” She has turned rose cultivation into an art form.

Many of the roses blooming in her sacred spaces once opened in her mother Helen Shumate’s garden — perfumed, persistent memories.

“I told everyone when Mom died that I wanted her rose bushes. Some of them are probably 50 years old. My mother was the ‘Rose Queen,’” she states.  

“People only die if you let them,” assures Vaughn. “The roses are from her mother, the peony came from her grandmother and the iris is from my mother. That way, a garden has meaning. They don’t die and the family members don’t die.”

While Barbara conceptualizes, plants and tends, husband Vaughn provides the heavy lifting. He has hand-carried natural stone to create an expansive pathway system diverging into separate trails honoring his sons in name, William and the late Vaughn York Jr., along with the other men of both their family trees — grandpas, great-grandpas, grandsons.

Embedded within the network of personalized walking trails are individual wildflower gardens representing each of the ladies, Vaughn and Barbara’s daughter Vonda and their granddaughters, along with other matrons and maidens down through their lineage.

Over 100-year-old rustic split rail fencing handed down from Vaughn’s father forms part of the boundary for the botanicals.

“Spring is when this whole area blooms,” Vaughn indicates with a sweep of his hand. He continues the tour of his wife’s gardens in deference to her injury, giving every ounce of credit for the fulfilled vision of a backyard sanctuary to her.

When Barbara speaks of her gardens, it is in terms of who or what inspired each.

“When we travel … I’ll see something I like and I’ll try to make a garden out of it,” she says.

Decades of travel have produced the Hawaiian garden, the Japanese garden, the Grand Teton garden and even a desert garden influenced by Barbara’s visit to Death Valley, Calif. — the lowest and driest location in North America.

“We couldn’t believe that there were flowers in the middle of the desert!”

With the images still in mind, Barbara came home and found tiny yellow blooms reminiscent of what she had seen there and various succulents, mini versions of the regeneration she’d witnessed in the sand.

“When we visited, it rained and the desert bloomed. It hadn’t rained there in 13 years at the time.”

As with the patriotic-themed red, white and blue garden presently in full regalia, the gardens open optimistically, each playing its colorful concert in season among a landscape tempering remembrance with humor. Like the Civil War-era moonshine still from Carnifex Ferry that Barbara and Vaughn acquired to adopt into her “West Virginia” shade garden. Or the model “outhouse” disguising a storage area for her gardening tools.

“Do you hear the birds?” Vaughn asks, describing not only the lives their gardens honor but the life they attract. A  canopy of tweets affirms that, yes, there is no end to visitors at the York house. “They’re all over the place here. Barbara feeds them.”

Both Yorks are sentimental that way — geared to respect, to host. The satisfaction of their labor returns each year in the songs of the birds, the hues of the various perennials, the not-long-for-this-world annuals Barbara carries in pots, faithfully replacing in spring, and the accents she reanimates with attention to the slightest detail. From the names of those who have passed on and those who remain to what flies, scurries or flutters, life is everywhere in the gardens.

“This is my passion,” says Barbara. “You should see my back porch in winter — full of plants I keep inside and can’t wait to get out and plant in the spring.”

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