CHAPEL HILL — Willow Drive could have been just another turn off the highway were it not for a special pair of neighbors.
Maria Christopher and Charlotte McFall live across from each other on Churchill Drive. In 2000, they got the idea to start a garden. McFall said it was her idea to plant a few flowering plants from their gardens around the neighborhood signs. Christopher took it a step further, suggesting plants for the whole side of the road, she said.
“Maria (says) we should tame the forest, we should make it uniform,” McFall said. “She starts it, and then, by George, it got to be both sides of the street.”
For 13 years, they have maintained hundreds of plants at the Fordham Boulevard intersection and many more at the Briarcliff entrance on Ephesus Church Road. In 2007, they won the Scotts Miracle-Gro’s Give Back to Gro contest for community beautification. The $1,250 prize bought more supplies, Christopher said.
Jack Vogt lives in Meadowmont but rides his bicycle through the Willow Drive neighborhood a couple times a week. He stopped one day to talk with Christopher, whom he saw trimming the forsythia bushes, and learned the women were managing the plants largely by themselves.
“She sounded discouraged, because no one was stepping up to the plate to take it over,” he said.
The work building the garden is done, but the women need younger neighbors to maintain it. Vogt said it would be good if the town or Chapel Hill Garden Club could step in.
A neighbor emailed Christopher this spring about helping to weed and suggested forming a committee to care for the gardens. They had a garden club many years ago, but it disbanded, McFall said. Former members donated about $100 left in the club’s coffers to the project, she said.
Christopher, who turned 80 this year, said she has had to cut back on the gardening to dedicate more time to her husband John, who is ill. She had her own scare on Mother’s Day when she fell and hit her head on the pavement. McFall is 71.
Over the years, they’ve invested more than $20,000 and an untold number of hours, Christopher said. They couldn’t have done it without help from neighbors, the town, a couple of East Chapel Hill High student volunteers and her grandchildren, she said. They understand people don’t have a lot of time, they said.
“We’re in a neighborhood where people are working; they have children,” McFall said.
“And they’re old, too,” Christopher said, finishing her sentence. “We are thankful for the support we get, and people just slowing down and saying, thank you, thank you. It has been amazing.”
Every February, they send out letters asking for donations. The nearby Ridgewood Club has donated more than $2,000, Christopher said. They adopted out crape myrtles one year, and neighbors spent the summer competing to have the best tree. This year, they’ve asked for volunteers to weed. They’ve gotten a few dozen responses and were paying $10 an hour to have someone do the rest, but the people they hired haven’t been dependable, McFall said.
This fall, they will be an option for local high school students looking to meet community-service requirements.
The street has changed a bit at a time, filling with homegrown plants, donated plants and plants bought with donations – lirope grass, forsythia, irises, tall yellow daisies, roses and Stella de Oro daylilies. They also nurtured trees: crape myrtles, dogwoods (one is a volunteer) and a chaste tree with purple spikes in summer. The town planted the cherry trees, she said.
It’s been fun and frustrating, they said. At one time, they had a pump in the nearby creek and 400 feet of hose. It took three adults a full morning to use, but when the pump broke, Christopher said they carried about 30 one-gallon bottles to water the plants. During the last major drought, a landscaper with a water vat on his truck came by to help, she said.
There have been missteps: Nineteen redbud trees that didn’t take root. The willow tree they planted on Willow Drive that the beavers liked better.
Vandals are a bigger problem, Christopher said. They hit the gardens at least 13 times – cutting up plants, stealing them or throwing them into the woods. Each time, they’ve replanted.
The women also nurtured a friendship in the gardens. McFall said she pulled a good prank one year when she sent Christopher a letter from “the governor.”
“It wanted to know if she’d be willing to take over the landscape on Highway 64 from where it began in the east and went all the way to the west,” McFall said. “She didn’t quite go for that.”