Labor of Love

For 50 years, Ruth and Don Moorhead have tended their stunning 2-acre garden in Broadview Heights.

Ruth and Don Moorhead hesitate to put down their morning cups of coffee. Seated on the deck and taking in views of their garden’s blooms, they linger a little longer before slipping on their work gloves. This spring, they have much to tackle on their chore list — repot multiple container gardens, prune shrubs, divide perennials, plant vegetables and clean up beds surrounding their historic farmhouse in Broadview Heights. If only they had two months of May, Ruth wishes.

“Sometimes in the fall I think, ‘Am I going to want to start all of this again next year?’ ” she says.

“There’s quite a bit of work and attention involved, but then spring comes around, and things start coming through the ground, and you just get into it again and enjoy seeing how plants come up and change.”

Ruth’s talents as an accomplished flower arranger and Garden Club of America horticulture judge shine in the 1-acre garden as she artfully combines varying textures and colors in landscaped beds and container arrangements. She welcomes her role as “gardener” and appreciates her husband’s help as “groundskeeper.”

This month, their non-stop garden begins with hyacinth bulbs, lilac shrubs and redbud trees. The show continues with summer favorites like purple coneflowers, yellow coreopsis, shrub roses and various hostas. At the season
finale, the colorful dahlias, white anemones, purple Redbor kale and flowering sedums become the stars.

As Don regularly waters these plants, he’s grown to appreciate how Ruth’s designs seamlessly transition through the seasons “without you even realizing it.” He says he doesn’t miss his beloved springtime bell flowers (campanulas) because his attention moves on to the summer-blooming hardy begonias.

Ruth may intentionally design colorful annual-lined beds filled with lush foliage, but she’s also been known to let self-sowers like alyssum, morning glories and nasturtium grow voluntarily between steps or from cracks in walls. “A lot of it happens by itself once it gets going,” she observes.

When Don and Ruth first visited their farm 50 years ago, the newlyweds were easily charmed by romantic notions of country living and innocently embraced the tasks involved with their recently acquired 36-acre property. “It seemed pretty overwhelming when we were first getting started,” says Don.

Established in 1853, the Western Reserve farm had been worked by two generations of families and included an 1870s house and two bank barns.

Don says the country lifestyle grew on the couple. “After a while you don’t know you’re working that hard,” he says.
Before starting on the gardens, the two initiated a conservation plan for the original farmland and property’s woodlands. Over the next 30 years, they cleared invasive plants, removed diseased willows and planted acres of conifers and hardwood trees, then built sandstone walls, installed foundation beds, sowed annual vegetable gardens and began gardening in containers that eventually grew to a collection of almost 100.

“Everything you see, we selected and planted,” says Don.

At first the projects were small, especially as they were busy building Don’s dental practice, coordinating room additions to their home, raising three children and caring for two horses.

Often, they would engage their kids in gardening — whether it was splitting  stones with Don or checking maple syrup buckets with Ruth. One son even requested a tree — an English oak — for his 12th birthday gift.

In the last 20 years as the couple became empty nesters and retired, their gardening interests escalated. In 1989, they contracted with Connelly Landscaping Company to tackle some problem areas, especially the slope to the side of the house.

“It’s hard to garden on a slope,” says Ruth, “so our landscaper designed a plan to level the gardening spaces.” The plan called for a series of terraced beds, a revamped deck and a stone patio with a large perennial border, herb garden and small stone pond. Several salvaged stone pieces add charm to these spaces. Old foundation stones from an abandoned nearby barn now form terrace walls, and a large stone well cover serves as the landing for steps made from former curb stones. Along these steps and throughout the garden, Ruth cleverly arranges numerous planted clay pots and concrete troughs.

She considers these container gardens to be “moveable gardens” to fill voids throughout the season. She pots multiple dahlia tubers, especially her favorite, Bishop of Llandoff, each spring for just that purpose. In late summer, she pulls the pots from the back edges of the garden and tucks in the late-seasonbloomers where flowers are needed.

Over time, the two have learned many other tricks from gardening friends and experts. Ruth says she first learned from local garden club members, then later became active in the Akron Garden Club, an affiliate of the Garden Club of America, where she trained to be a horticulture judge. For the past 16 years, she’s gained many more valuable experiences as trustee of the Cleveland Botanical Garden and co-chair of three of its flower shows.

Today, Ruth generously shares her gardening wisdom with others. She encourages new gardeners to experiment in the garden and not be discouraged by failures. Rather, she says “enjoy the process in learning how things grow.”

Smart Gardening
Long before sustainability was a buzzword in gardening magazines, Ruth Moorhead was practicing its principles
in her own back yard. “It was simply smart gardening,” she says. The following are some of her gardening tips:

Select plants wisely. Take advantage of Midwestern native plants but don’t feel you have to use them exclusively. The key is to know your backyard’s growing conditions (sunny, shady, dry, moist or by soil type) and select plants that thrive there.

Enrich your soil. When frustrated with your landscape’s growing conditions, look at ways to change them. Try terracing a slope or amending clay soil. Ruth learned from Secrest Arboretum’s curator to save time, energy and money by reusing leaves as a nutrient-rich mulch in her perennial beds. She also layers newspapers and straw in her vegetable garden to reduce weeds, retain water and improve the soil.

Tolerate imperfections. Learn to accept some wildlife grazing and insect damage to minimize the use of chemicals in the garden.

Use local and recycled materials. Rather than ordering exotic stones from faraway places, the Moorheads cleverly build walls with old curb stones, native field stone and salvaged foundation stones. The recycled local materials add interesting textures and historic richness to their garden.

Save time. Evaluate where you want to spend your time. For Ruth, she chooses to maintain a time-intensive collection of container gardens with her husband’s watering help but forgoes high-maintenance plants like plate-sized dahlias that need staking.

Don’t toss seasonal plants. Rather than replacing tropical plants and tender bulbs each season, learn how to simply overwinter them in a basement or cellar. Try growing them in a semi-dormant state in a bright, cool area or storing them dormant in a dark, cold (but not freezing) location.

Grow edibles. Ruth continues her parents’ legacy in planting a sizable vegetable and fruit garden to enjoy and share with others. She even grows colorful Swiss chard, herbs and peppers in containers near her back door.

Consider beauty. Keep one eye on aesthetics and the other eye on sustainability in designing a visually pleasing garden. Ruth cleverly juxtaposes colors and textures in her garden.

Embrace wildlife. Plant bird and butterfly favorites like salvias and buddleia. Leave a few seed heads (especially coneflowers) for birds to enjoy through the winter. The Moorheads have created wildlife habitats throughout their 36-acre farm, but count on their dog Sterling to keep grazing deer, rabbits and ground hogs from their landscaped beds.