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Plants that matter: 90-year-old fern thrives; memorial garden brings peace

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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Barbara Loney of Harmar created this garden as a memorial to her late son Mark.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Blanche and George Metzgar of Washington Twp. in Westmoreland County stand in their 'California Room' with the fern they inherited from George's parents.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Blanche and George Metzgar of Washington Twp. in Westmoreland County grow this fern they inherited from George's parents. George's father James gave it to his mother Edith in the 1920's and it's been a treasured member of the family ever since.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Blanche and George Metzgar of Washington Twp. in Westmoreland County grow this fern they inherited from George's parents. George's father James gave it to his mother Edith in the 1920's and it's been a treasured member of the family ever since.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Blanche and George Metzgar of Washington Twp. in Westmoreland County grow this fern they inherited from George's parents. George's father James gave it to his mother Edith in the 1920's and it's been a treasured member of the family ever since. In the foreground is a portrait of Edith and James Metzgar.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Barbara Loney of Harmar created this garden as a memorial to her late son Mark. Last July, she held a get-together to decorate the garden and take advantage of free fishing day.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Barbara Loney of Harmar created this garden as a memorial to her late son Mark. In the foreground are daisies set off by purple phlox.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Barbara Loney of Harmar created this garden as a memorial to her late son Mark. This is an overall look at the whole garden.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Barbara Loney of Harmar created this garden as a memorial to her late son Mark. Last July fourth she help a get together to decorate the garden and take advantage of free fishing day. Friends and family came and painted rocks for the garden and fished in the Allegheny River. Mark was an avid fisherman, this was a way to honor him. This is a stone that Barbara painted.

George and Blanche Metzgar of Washington Township, Westmoreland County, sit in their “California Room” as the sun streams through the windows illuminating the leaves of a very special Boston fern. It’s been in the family since the 1920s when George’s father, James, gave it to his then-girlfriend Edith.

James wanted to give his girl something special, so he chose an Easter flower in a pot with a fern. The flower faded away, but the fern persisted. It wasn’t long before the couple was married.

“When I was a kid, my parents always talked about the fern,” George says, smiling. “We just took it for granted that ferns live on and on and on. I never realized that 90 years later, we’d still have the same plant.”

It was Edith who made sure the plant was happy for all those years.

“My mother would divide it when it seemed to get root-bound and spin off pieces to anybody who wanted them,” George says.

His father passed away in 1984, and his mother died in 1995. That’s when Blanche was charged with caring for the fern, a job that is not without concern.

“This is Edith’s spirit and so I get very nervous,” she says of keeping the fern thriving. “This is the only plant that I care about in this whole house when we travel. I don’t want this fern to die because that’s her spirit.”

The plant lives on their sun porch from March until December, getting watered religiously twice a week, and then goes into an unheated spare room where it basically goes dormant.

“It is a responsibility, but it’s a happy responsibility,” she says. “I only get nervous in the winter when I have to move it into my daughter’s bedroom.”

She had a great relationship with her mother-in-law; it’s one of the reasons she cares so much for the plant.

“I really liked Edith; she was wonderful,” Blanche says.

Edith and James were high-school sweethearts who settled in Washington Township in 1967 after James supervised the construction of their home, built on five acres his father set aside for them off the family farm.

Every so often, George will take the plant outside to a round, concrete garden table, split it up and replant it in the pot.

“You’ve got to divide them and cast off parts now and then,” he says. “Either give them away or pitch them.”

When he does give part of the plant away, it’s like sharing a piece of his mother. “They all call their ferns Edith,” he says proudly.

The fern is a treasured part of the family that thrives in the newer urn George uses now, which sits on one of the original stands his mother used for the plant.

“It’s something you can look at, touch it, feel it,” he says. “My mother took care of it; now she’s passed away and the plant survives. It’s sort of like her spirit continuing on indefinitely.”

A perfect memorial

A soft breeze comes up a steep embankment from the Allegheny River, making pretty white daisies sway in Barbara Loney’s garden. It’s planted as a memorial to her son, Mark, who passed away last year at 32. He had a long struggle with anxiety and depression and lost the battle, taking his own life.

“I spent a good part of my life trying to get him help,” she says. “He was not happy in this life; he was not happy at all.”

The view of the river from her Harmar garden is serene and the perfect place to memorialize her son, who was an avid fisherman.

In a way, his love of fishing triggered an epiphany for his mother. One day, she saw a sign alerting anglers to a free fishing day on July 4.

She decided to throw a party to create the memorial garden. People could come help decorate and also fish in the river. Mark would like that, she thought.

The retired Avonworth School District teacher connected with a former co-worker who happily dug perennials out of her own garden to be used in the memorial garden.

Loney planted purple coneflowers, daisies, a pink rose, a butterfly bush, penstemon and more in a small space just outside the back porch overlooking the river.

“I can’t tell you what a wonderful feeling I had planting those things. It was so cathartic. It was so peaceful,” she says.

Most of the plants were in place before the big day when a group of 50 or 60 friends and family came to decorate the garden and do some fishing in Mark’s honor. Many painted rocks with messages of hope, which were placed on the soft soil under the plants.

“I have loved every single day going out and looking at that garden,” Loney says. “Everything is always so sad, but that isn’t. That’s not sad at all.” The garden, she says, “makes me happy to know he is at peace right now.”

The garden has flourished. It’s filled with blooms, and Loney was thrilled to see her first butterfly visit as she looked down at the brilliant purple blooms of the butterfly bush. Bright-red cardinals also come to the garden.

“They are a little message from heaven,” she says with a smile. “They are coming down and telling me he’s OK.”

When a neighbor marveled at the blooms, and Loney told her she wasn’t deadheading the flowers, the neighbor paused and said, “Ah, that’s divine intervention.”

As the blooms dance in the wind, she reflects on what this little patch of flowers does for her.

“It’s a reason for me to get up in the morning, go outside, play in that garden and make it as perfect as I can,” she says. In barely a whisper, choking back tears, she adds, “I miss him.”

Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or [email protected]. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at triblive.com/lifestyles/dougoster.

Article by Doug Oster,
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