How a Silver Spring garden was rescued after its owner’s death


Prickly pear cactus begins its late spring bloom in the garden of Charlie Bowman, who died in October 2011. The plantings brought a touch of the Southwest to Silver Spring. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post/ADRIAN HIGGINS/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist June 20, 2012

Suffering from arthritis but determined to keep gardening, Charlie Bowman decided to sell his cozy brick house in Silver Spring and move to Arizona, where he and his beloved desert plants would rejoice in the dry heat.

This was undoubtedly a difficult decision: He had spent 30 years in the garden around his house transforming an ordinary suburban yard into an extraordinary collection of diverse plants. He lived alone, except for the thousands of plants he had raised through the years. When he wasn’t in his garden, the retired engineer would be inside, reading about gardening or strumming country songs. “He sang and played the guitar, and he said it kept him company,” said his sister, Lucy Ellen Jones.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

She was visiting from Ohio when he had an open house a year ago. He returned that afternoon to find little interest from prospective buyers. “He was so disappointed because [the real estate agent] told him the house didn’t sell because of the flowers,” she said.

How could something so precious be a liability?

So he went back to gardening, to the shade garden in the back — a leafy confection of perennials, ground covers and shrubs — and the desert garden in the sunny front. One day in October, Charlie Bowman, youthful, trim, 67, died as he had lived, alone. The police found him after several days. “We suspect either a stroke or a heart attack,” said his brother Loyd Bowman, of Holly, Mich.

Seven months later, his siblings were faced with the same dilemma, though now a sadder one. How do you sell a house where the garden was so intensely planted, and so personal? Most buyers want a lawn for the kids or the dog. And a buyer who was an avid gardener would want a clean slate, said Donna Kerr, the real estate agent selling the house.

Raising arizona in Maryland

Kerr came up with an idea. What if local garden club members were to carefully lift many of the plants and grow them in their own gardens? They would pay a small fee, and the proceeds would be used to turn much of the gardens back into lawn so the house could be sold.

She called Jim Dronenburg, of the citywide Four Seasons Garden Club, and he marshaled his forces. Most of the salvaged plants will be potted up and used in plant exchanges and sales, to disperse and save the flora and to raise funds for the organization. Earlier this month, club members, along with some neighbors and Allen Hirsh, a cactus and succulent expert, spent two weekends digging and rescuing the plants and installing sod.

Kerr recently put the house on the market, and it found a buyer after 12 days. The removal of the plants “was critical in making it appealing to today’s home buyer,” she said.

The rear yard is in the lee of a neighbor’s massive old oak tree. Over the years, Charlie reduced the area of lawn, assiduously amended the clay soil with regular top dressings of municipal leaf mold and planted every square foot with shade-loving ferns and perennials, such things as epimediums, hostas, heucheras, gingers and the uncommon, yellow-flowering Corydalis lutea. For height and bulk, he planted large shrubs, including viburnums, camellias and oakleaf hydrangeas.

Although this was a collector’s garden, the plants were arranged artistically. Looking at the remaining perimeter beds, you get a sense that he was always tinkering back there, lifting, replanting, dividing and finding ways to add to the medley. Dronenburg said the rescuers lifted a slow-growing bulb named a crinum that was three feet across and must have been in the ground for 20 years. Its clusters of lilylike blooms must have been striking to behold.

The front garden was like being on another planet. Charlie had been taken by the desert flora of Arizona and was growing oddities that weren’t supposed to flourish or even survive in the summer-humid and winter-frigid climate of Washington.

But he lived on a street named Flower Avenue, in the Highland View neighborhood north of Takoma Park, and if the agaves, yuccas and opuntias had been puppies, they would have rolled over for him.

The several Yucca rostrata in particular were hard to miss. This is a fine-textured yucca from Texas that forms a large sphere of spiky leaves. After many years, the sphere is held aloft on a trunk. Charlie’s had grown to about eight feet, which is a phenomenal height in Maryland. Hirsh also pointed out Yucca gloriosa, a plant you see in the Carolinas and Florida but not much up here. The treasures included well-established prickly pears, now in lovely yellow bloom, an Agave Parryi, native to the Southwest and Mexico, and an agave relative named Dasylirion.

Getting to know Charlie

Charlie’s longtime neighbor Nancy Weber said that before he retired a few years ago, he would start the day with a cup of coffee and peruse his shade garden. After his retirement, virtually all his spare time was spent tending his plants. “He said he could get out there and work for hours, and it would seem to him he had only been outside for a short period of time,” said his sister, who lives in Hamilton, Ohio.

Neighbors remember Charlie as an intensely private guy, but wittingly or not, he connected himself to the greater world with his garden. People would drive by and leave empty plant pots for him to use. Along with his palmlike succulents, he was a familiar sight on Flower Avenue, talking to neighbors and strangers alike about his plants, but about nothing else.

“A lot of people felt they knew Charlie,” said neighbor Andrew Eisel, who was helping with the plant salvage on a recent hot Sunday morning. “As this process has been going on, people have said, ‘Oh no, what’s going on?’ Everyone had this attachment to Charlie and the house even though they didn’t know him personally.”

A few minutes earlier, Donna Kerr showed up to see how the digging was going. “She wasn’t willing to commit mass planticide,” said Dronenburg. “This way there will be dozens of people who never knew Charlie but will remember him kindly.”

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

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