A blooming paradise on Decatur Street
WATKINS GLEN--In the summer, as people drive down Decatur Street in Watkins Glen, most slow down to enjoy the flowers as they approach Sixth Street. Some simply stare, others stop and talk. When there's more than one person in the car, "Sometimes I can see by the expression on their face, I can tell they're talking about the yard," says Milagros (Mila) Whiting. "I usually make the first move and go over to them. They say, we always come here every year."
The colorful display of a corner lot in bloom is a labor of love for Whiting and her sister, Mirla Hall. They've known about the magic of growing things from their childhood in Manila, Philippines, where their father was a landscaper, through much shorter summers in Alaska where they lived while their husbands worked there for the Air Force, to the move Whiting made to Watkins Glen with her husband and young son, to be near her husband's family. In the mid 1980s, after the death of Milagros' husband, when she was expecting her second son, she and her sister Mirla, by then also alone, decided to live in one house. Clearly good friends as well as sisters, the two have long collaborated on their flower gardens, starting small, then expanding a little each year. "But we're out of room now," Whiting says, laughing.
Their garden year begins in April, when Hall sows flats of seeds in trays outdoors, covering them or bringing them inside on cold nights, letting them enjoy the benefit of sunshine during the day. They collect some of their seeds from the previous year's plants, buy some seeds and plants, have others given to them. In the spring, they transplant the young seedlings, sometimes talking to them for encouragement when they don't yet look promising. Geraniums come out of the house and are planted. Hall decides on most of the arrangement of the Decatur Street side of the garden; Whiting puts together the Sixth Street side. Sometimes plants are given to them--some particularly healthy specimens were rescued near the point of death by Whiting's younger son, who knew his mother could nurse the scrawny plants back to health. Now she's given away their offspring to anyone interested.
"George's Garden" off their deck was begun by Whiting's oldest son George, who brought in rocks and perennial plants to create his own small garden, now expanded a bit by his mother and aunt. George and Ernest's former sandbox is now home to thousands of dahlias. Plants that don't fit into the garden beds are set into pots--hundreds of them. Whiting works several days a week at the Mall in Big Flats, so Hall, now retired, does most of the watering.
Sometimes, spectators will ask whether the wide variety of flowers--and there's a whole alphabet of them from diminutive ageratum to towering zinnias--are a lot of work. I counted 35 varieties of flowers and knew I'd missed some. "Of course it's a lot of work," Whiting says. "But it's not just for us, it's for everyone."
"It makes people happy," Hall says. The atmosphere and the subtle aromas of flowers, sweet and spicy, light as a breeze yet rich as their waves of color, combine to create a peaceful haven in an urban setting.
Unfortunately, it also makes a small herd of Watkins Glen deer happy. Whiting has stayed up late to watch them at night, prancing up Sixth Street and pausing to browse at neighboring gardens on their way to her flowers. She shooed them off and hung Irish Spring soap in her trees, hoping to repel future visits--but by then, they'd done some damage. Despite Whiting's dismay at the harm the deer caused, no one else would notice.
Are there secrets to their beautiful garden? The sisters look at each other and laugh. "No," they say simultaneously. They apply a little Miracle-Gro once a season. They weed and water. They say patience is a factor, and having faith that puny seedlings will result in lush blooming plants, even when they look like they have no intention of thriving. "Talk to your plants," Hall suggests--"But not when someone's around."
After the fall cleanup, the heaviest work of the year in the garden, a neighbor takes the refuse, grinds and composts it, returning them rich compost in the spring. This nutrient-dense growing medium is appreciated by their plants, which often surprise them by growing far larger than expected.
But before frost, near the end of the growing season, the sisters pick bouquets and offer them for sale near their garden, in cups of water. It's the only time they pick their flowers--until then they'd prefer to enjoy them growing--but when frost looms, it's a way to extend the season. The sales of the flowers help fund the next year's garden.
It's something, they say, that anyone could do. "It boosts your spirits to go out to the garden," Whiting says. "It's therapy." Hall agrees.
"I do the same thing. Walking around, looking at the flowers, it's good for the mind."