Mark Gibson of Tiffin is dreading the demise of his beloved botanical retreat. Abundant summer rain and mild temperatures lasting into October have allowed his backyard sanctuary to flourish, but the inevitable frost is likely to set in before the month ends.
"When the first frost comes, I get depressed," Gibson said. "Every year, it takes me three months to complete it from start to finish."
The local gardener has made the most of his small, outdoor space. Two decks on the back of the house provide a good view of the spectacle spread out beneath two venerable evergreens. Flower beds overflow with rich foliage and blossoms. Statuary peeks out and fountains gurgle amid cascades of greenery. Shafts of sunlight focus on each plot and planter in succession as evening sets in.
"Big, red begonias and angel-wing begonias do really well back here, plus an assortment geraniums, including German geraniums," Gibson said. "My favorite is the mandevillas."
He said the begonias grew bigger this year than ever before. Licorice plants, petunias, alyssum, ivy and asparagus ferns also are at their peak, spilling out of pots and urns. Angels, bird baths, benches, "four seasons" figures and planters dot the landscape.
"I do this every year, all for the glory of God and in memory of my mother, Patricia Gibson. I always want to give God the glory first, because I know he works through me .... It's the Lord's garden," Mark said.
Each May, Gibson takes vacation time from his job at Ameriwood in Tiffin to get everything started. Then, he prays for its success and works at it whenever he can, usually finishing in July. There is only a little grass to keep mowed, but he is in the garden every day, from the time his shift ends until well after dark. Soothing instrumental music wafts across the yard as he waters, weeds and trims.
"Sometimes I'm out here with lights on," Gibson said. "At night, it's really magical, because everything lights up, and there are foggers in all the fountains and fog will roll down along the ground and change colors."
Gibson said under the lights, the petals of his translucent red flowers look like stained glass. Tiki torches add a festive touch for visitors, who often comment about the calming, spiritual nature of the garden that seems to breathe peace and serenity.
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"The flowers, the water and the music. No matter what kind of day you've had, you come home and sit down in the yard and realize how blessed you are," Gibson said. "I always tell everybody, the Lord's been very good to me and I've been very blessed. I feel very close to my mom. There's a spiritual connection between the yard and my mother."
In 1976, Mark and his mother bought the house, former home of Jocko Huffman, whose name is on a Tiffin athletic field. Mature trees and grass were the only plantings then. Gibson said he has always been interested in various aspects of art. Having done gardening and yard work for Jane Frost Kalnow, he started adding a few shrubs, flowers and ornaments each year.
"There was nothing here when we moved, except these big old (evergreen) trees, and I planted everything else. I did all the wiring for all the fountains," Gibson said.
He bought most of the fountains and other garden art on sale from local businesses, including Tiffin Hardware, Mohawk Nursery and Lowe's Home Improvement. A few were purchased out of town. The fountains and sculptures all are painted in stone colors. Whenever Gibson found a statue he liked finished in colors he didn't like, he bought it, anyway.
"I did ceramics for years, so I painted them all myself. When they need to be touched up or re-finished, I refinish everything. Some of these things are 30 years old," he said.
Mark also built the decks and put up a wooden plank fence that offers privacy and serves as a backdrop for the flowers. When Patricia became disabled by ALS, rheumatoid arthritis and breathing difficulty, Mark would bring her out onto the deck to keep him company as he worked in the yard.
"I can remember for years, she would sit up here in the wheelchair. I'd take her out every day ... She couldn't wait until I got the yard done," Gibson said.
Organizers of the Tiffin Historic Trust Garden Tour have been asking him to participate, but Gibson said the tour usually is scheduled before his flowers are in bloom. They tend to peak in July. This year the tour was scheduled for a later date, but it had to be canceled.
"I was ready ... This was my No. 1 year for flowers that went completely crazy," Gibson said.
Although he takes many garden photographs each year, Gibson said he may not look at them when planning for the next season. He tries to choose a color scheme as a starting point and goes shopping for plants that appeal to him in that combination. White flowers are essential to accent the colored ones.
"I guess my yard is my canvas ... and it just became my passion," Gibson said. "Once I get the first pot planted, it's almost like the spirit of God comes over me and I can't stop."
Most of Gibson's plants come from Wagner Floral Co. and Molyet's Farm Market. He said both businesses have been "very generous" to him. At Gibson's invitation, Wagner's owners and employees have come over to see what he has done with purchases from the greenhouse. Many times, he has obtained ailing specimens at a discount and revived them.
"I know how to doctor them up and fertilize them.," Gibson explained.
He has tried propagating some of the plants from cuttings to carry them through the winter, but the results have not been to his liking. He does make cuttings in the summer if large pieces of plants break off. Gibson recalled the year when hail caused heavy damage to his handiwork. For two days, he could not bring himself to get a close look. Then, he got out his trimming equipment and salvaged what was still viable. Before long, most of the plants rebounded and bloomed again.
"I fertilize everything in the spring when I start. I use this really good fertilizer that lasts four months, and I always use really good potting soil. Every year, I go through at least 20 of the large bags," Gibson said.
He does reuse some of the soil, but he always needs more. When it goes on fall clearance, he buys as many bags as he can. The gardener estimates he has 75 pots, most of which he also bought on clearance. When the temperature dips toward the freezing mark, about 25 pots will go into the basement for the winter, including Boston ferns, mandevillas and some other non-hardy items.
"The rest of it just dies and I replant - start over from scratch - every single year," Gibson said.
He already has drained some of the fountains, which are to be dismantled and covered or stored. Gibson said he takes vacation days the week of Thanksgiving to put bags over everything too heavy to be moved. The smaller items are taken into the garage, which has become an oversized potting shed and workshop. There, everything is cleaned, repaired and repainted.
"I'm so grateful the weather's been so nice for so long. I tell everybody at work, 'I'm going to go home and get every penny out of them that I can," Gibson said. "Even when it does get cooler, I'll have a little fire in the back yard. It's so relaxing to sit out there with the music and have friends out there. ... It doesn't mean anything if you can't share it with somebody."
Patricia asked Mark to keep up their "secret garden" even after her passing, and he agreed to do so as long as possible. Some years, the task seems overwhelming, but then everything falls into place. Mark said he cared for Patricia for 12 years until she died seven years ago.
"Caring for her increased my faith," Gibson said. "My mom always told me, 'Mark, you've got a gift. Keep on doing it every year for your mom, as long as you can do it. Every year you get it done, you'll think of your mom.' But I think of her every day."