A Lesson of Beginnings and Endings
From a sprawling backyard garden to an urbane rooftop escape visible only to neighboring high rises, Lolita Aaron’s transformation from suburban gardener to urban gardener provides unlikely lessons in renewal and regeneration.
When I first heard Lolita Aaron’s story, I flashed forward with images of my small two-acre farm whizzing through my head. The birthday parties in the garden, the baby showers and the wedding, the warm evenings dining at the 12-seat picnic table in the grass—the events and relationships that happen in the garden.
I tried to reach for the memories. To sort and file them away while they were streaming by. Because Lolita’s story may one day be my story. Or it might already be your story.
When the toils and celebrations in our garden turn to farewells. When we must move to a smaller dwelling—one more ‘manageable’ as they say. But ‘manageable’ has a different meaning to passionate gardeners. As my father, an avid gardener, said years ago, “I’m going to build a bigger garden, now that I’m getting older.” Seemingly an oxymoron, but not to a gardener.
Lolita’s story will inspire you. The garden was her raison d’etre. But that reason for living doesn’t end when you move. It just starts over.
“My husband and I were moving in 7 weeks, and it felt as if my life was ending,” she recalls of her suburban garden. “Intellectually, I was aware we had ‘lucked out’ so to speak. That we sold the house at a good price and that we were moving to a lovely area, fun and vibrant, and funky. We would have a roof terrace, and be on one level and all that practical stuff.”
But leaving a home and a garden you’ve tended for so long comes with inevitable sorrow. “We had loved the house; we had loved the garden and taken care of it. We had shared it with visitors and showed it off. Often I cursed it, especially in November when every deciduous tree shed its leaves. But I loved it again in winter when it showed off its structure. And again when I saw the first limey green appearance of the maples unfurling their foliage. It never ended. The love affair went on for years and years.
“Gardening has taught me the lesson of beginnings and endings, and of cycles and of renewal. It isn’t about the plants. It’s about the things that have happened in the garden. Those things don’t stop, it just means we have to go up a flight of stairs now.”
“There is hope I found,” Lolita says, “to recreate a green space. There is renewal and the regenerating of oneself even when of advanced years.”
Not content to revive the garden of her past, Lolita set out to create a living space worthy of its environment. “Before, we were suburban gardeners. But I wanted this garden to look like it had grown up in the city,” she says.
Here’s how she did it…
In collaboration with Damen Djos, a garden designer that Lolita describes as a meticulous beauty maker and wizard of plant combinations, Lolita’s new garden started to take shape.
“I didn’t want anything flamboyant,” she says. “I wanted the garden to feel urbane. It needed to be more sophisticated and restrained in terms of color and a limited plant palette.
“So I chose silvers, grays, black and occasional punches of color with lavender, juniper, and alliums. The nolona cascading over the raised beds gives an electric blue of color and the hydrangea peegees have a dreamy effect that soften the static landscape.”
Working on concrete and creating the illusion of a green sanctuary proved to be challenging. “Our ‘neighbors’ are technically always peering down on us since we’re surrounded by high rises,” describes Lolita. “I wanted it to feel when you sat down that you were enclosed, as if you were in a garden.”
Mature maple trees and stewartias cast shade and create the perfect setting. Lolita also wanted to give the illusion of movement. “A key plant was Calamagrotis acutifolia. It is wondrous because they move against the concrete backdrop of buildings, like a corps de ballet.”
Get more ideas for rooftop gardens.
Paying attention to weight was of prime concern. The planters were filled 1/3 with Styrofoam and a minimum amount of soil. “We brought in 180 bags of soil for the planters and raised beds,” says Lolita. “All of the plants are bound by the space they’re in, and they’re all doing well despite being contained.” The soil is amended every other year and plants are fed regularly.
“Surprisingly, the rooftop is a great location for plants because of the air circulation. There is no disease because there is a lot of ventilation and sun and rain. And we enjoy a lot of birds, particularly a pair of white crowned sparrows who entertain us with their duets,” she says.
“Damen found pebbles and feather rocks in the existing raised beds,” she says. “They were used to create a path.” Along with tiles, a statue and other collected mementos on display, the path winds behind the stairway building. “I like things that don’t go, that are a part of our history.” A sculpted head and wrought iron lantern are surrounded by ferns, hostas, and grasses brunerras.
“Because it’s not at ground level, it feels integrated. It gives the garden a sense of height, and a feeling of enclosure, plus it’s very cool and shaded,” she says.
1. Calamagrotis acutifolia in 30-foot wooden planters.
2. Hydrangea paniculata ‘PeeGee’ in bloom.
3. Yew hedge, ‘PeeGee’ hydrangeas, Lonicera sempervirens ‘Honeysuckle’ and two maples edged with boxwood in 27-foot long planters, 5-feet wide.
4. Juniperus scopulorum ‘Wichita Blue Junipers’, Lavendula angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’, alliums, and nolona.
No stranger to the heartaches involved in relocating, Lolita and her family moved from Cape Town to Vancouver more than 34 years ago. “We have [moved] before, a painful move from one country to another. Leaving so much more than house and garden, leaving a way of being, family, friends, strong connections,” she says. “But we’re reminded of the pleasures, which gardens give to us.” And which Lolita continues to enjoy with her family and husband Jack, devoted partner and supporter of all her endeavors for the past 43 years.
Lolita’s story resonates with many. We’re reminded that as we age, the moments in our garden become treasured memories.
I endeavor to be more mindful of my time in the garden. Slower to walk through the trees and savor how the setting sun casts its orange glow on the fence and flowers. More diligent at photographing and cataloging birthday parties and dinners. Because my story—and your story—are being written now.
Photography courtesy of Lolita's friend, Susan Curtis.