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.”

On the top floor of a 6-story condominium in Yaletown, a community in downtown Vancouver, Lolita, mother of four children and four grandchildren, transformed herself into a city gardener. The contemporary rooftop garden is a sight to behold. Mature trees, a woodland garden and path, shaded dining and sitting areas seem counterintuitive billowing and blossoming over a bustling city street.

“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.

With 900 square feet of a concrete rooftop, Lolita says she “inherited some good bones” in the roof terrace with some raised beds and mature trees already in existence. 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.”

The plan for the garden was to divide it into a seating area and a dining area. Wood planters were built as visual partitions. The wood, which could not fit in the elevator, was hoisted from the ground floor. The planters were painted monochrome in a slate color, a slightly darker gray than the concrete.

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.”

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.

A yew hedge, hydrangeas and maples greet garden-goers at the top of the stairs. On the right is a settee from Restoration Hardware flanked by two boxwoods. Three containers with Stewartia pseudocamellia, Dichondra and grasses divide the seating and dining rooms. Along the perimeter, raised beds 30-feet in length and 3-feet wide create a green barrier. Streetside, planters are filled with grasses and cascading rosemary.

“We inherited a 27-foot long, 3-foot deep raised bed that is 5 feet wide,” explains Lolita. The slight elevation allows for Datura, Parrotia and maples to flourish.

“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.

As odd as it sounds, to the left of the stairs on the east side a raised bed beckons with a path through a woodland garden under a canopy of Parrotias. “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.

“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.

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.

Recently, Lolita provided us an update of her garden, 12 years later.

The woodland border and Karl Foerster feather grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) give a sense of enclosure on two sides of the rooftop.

David Austin ‘Jude the Obscure’ English shrub rose enjoys the sunny terrace.

The Karl Foerster grass border also provides movement, while also allowing a view of the surrounding area.

Japanese stewartias (Stewartia pseudocamelia) planted in large fiberglass containers bring separation between the dining and seating areas.

A colorful succulent centerpiece accents the table in the dining area.

The woodland border with yew hedge that separates the terrace from the neighbors also includes statues that were part of their previous garden.

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