Perennial Peace

I never expected a garden to be a peacemaker.

Anomalously, Posh Westport, CT’s homeless shelter sits on the town’s equivalent of Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue. A former town maintenance garage, it abuts a fancy Japanese restaurant, faces the town green and Westport’s massive town library, and, literally, is a block from Tiffany’s, Patagonia and Restoration Hardware.

Called The Gillespie Center, how Westport let it get there I don’t know. Run by non-profit Homes with Hope, it’s one of several housing centers they provide for individuals and families in need, though it’s the only one smack in the middle of the town’s ritzy commercial district.

Waiting at the Westport car wash one day, I struck up a conversation with a guy named Pete Powell whose organization ran the Gillespie Center.  I told him that, ever since my daughters could hold paint brushes, we’ve been doing public service projects one day a week after school. Lately, we’d been painting apartments for the homeless in nearby Bridgeport. I was looking for a new project because I could tell they were tiring of painting. One thing led to another, and I agreed that our new project would be the land around the Gillespie Center that we’d turn into a garden. I agreed to this sight-unseen.

When my daughters and I arrived to assess the work, I realized I should have looked first. The L-shaped piece of land, about 100 feet on each side and about 20 feet deep, surrounded the one-story desolate red brick homeless shelter. The land was covered with litter. Yes there was some usable rock. But mainly there were liquor bottled, trash bags, lawn chairs and other dump-eligible debris. In several places, when we hit what looked like dirt, an inch or two further down was hardpan: a relatively impervious layer probably compacted by the road-maintenance equipment that used to be kept there.

Lucky for us I had a pick-up truck, plus soil, mulch and stone stockpiled at my house for use in my larger garden. I thought that the police (their stationhouse being across the street) were going to arrest me for child labor violations for all the time my girls, the youngest then 6, the older twins 10, spent wheel-barrowing out trash, and wheel-barrowing in soil and stone from the bed of the truck to where we built stone walls and amended soil.

We covered open areas with pachysandra which duly engaged in its three-year cycle of first “sleeping,” second “creeping,” thirdly “leaping.” With trellises and rampantly-growing trumpet vine, we disguised various sewage pipes and oil tank vents that popped out of the land like periscopes. We planted hydrangea, rhododendron, forsythia, compact Ms. Kim lilacs and butterfly bush. We installed a concrete bench, planter and bird bath that we found at garage sales. A friend donated a battery-operated irrigation system at cost. And given our proximity to the weather-moderating influence of the sea (Westport is on Long Island Sound), we planted material I wouldn’t dare try growing at home just ten miles north, like beautiful, feathery blue chaste tree (Vitex negrundo).

As we worked, and the garden took form, the non-homeless people of Westport, on their way to or from the library or sushi or getting a Tiffany ring, started saying appreciative things to us. We even won some kind of Westport gardening award.

A few years into the project, Pete Powell told me that, in the years since we began working on the area, local antipathy for the shelter had declined significantly, a change he attributed in not insubstantial part to appreciation for the garden.

Now ten years later, my family having moved out of the area, we’ve passed the maintenance aspect of the garden on to others. But I always carry my pruners and gloves in the car and, when I’m in the area, stop by and tune it up a bit though, as you can see in this album, to a large extent it takes care of itself.

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