Anchored by something old and many things new, this Mapleton Hill garden has transitioned alongside its owners.
By Carol Brock • Photos by WeinrauchPhotography.com
If only tables could talk, instead of turn. If they could, the old sandstone-slab table in Sheila and Peter Dierks’ Mapleton Hill garden would have a few tales to tell.
In 1921, the table seated Boulder County’s very first kindergarten class, taught by Faye Curtin. Faye attended normal school (the forerunner of teachers’ college) in Iowa, where she learned about the concept of kindergarten, a recent import from Germany at that time. “She was really excited about it,” Sheila says, equating Faye’s enthusiasm to today’s interest in early infant and toddler education.
Faye brought the concept back to her family’s Mapleton Hill home, which the Dierkes now own, and petitioned local education authorities to start a kindergarten across the street at Mapleton School. “They said it was socialist and we won’t have any of that nonsense!” Sheila says.
Being an independent woman, Faye decided “if I can’t do it over there, I’ll do it over here,” and her home became the site of Boulder’s first kindergarten class. Faye even served as bus driver and picked up students in her convertible Studebaker. The sandstone slab that still graces the Dierkses’ garden was most likely the site of picnics, picture drawing and other kindergartner activities.
In 1938, the Boulder Board of Education added kindergarten to the school system and Faye began walking across the street to hold classes. “Almost everybody over the age of 60 who lived in Mapleton Hill had Faye Curtin as their kindergarten teacher,” Sheila says. “She was much, much beloved.”
Fast-forward 66 years to 2004, and Faye’s table is the site of another epic event: Sheila’s 60th birthday. “I gave myself a big birthday party—a three-day-weekend birthday party—and invited people I’d known in every community we’ve lived in,” Sheila recalls.
All told, 60 people showed up from all corners of the country to enjoy a weekend of hikes, baseball games and cultural outings. But the activity that touched Sheila’s heart was the all-women party in her backyard. “A friend of mine ran it; she’s an artist here in town, and she set up an art project for everyone,” she says. “It was hands-on art creation, and the theme was friendship.”
Again, the sandstone table came into play as a setting for art making, dinner and wine for the 40 women who attended. After each person crafted her creation, the group talked about the aspects of friendship it represented. Then Sheila’s daughter and daughter-in-law hung each piece on the garden arbor. “It was phenomenal,” Sheila reminisces. “We did the butterfly thing—just let the wind take them wherever they go.” After eight years, only a bird, a dragonfly and a beaded wire strand are still waiting for the wind to carry them aloft.
Even though the table has endured in the garden for nearly a century, the garden itself has constantly transitioned. “It did not look at all like it looks now, except in some very bare-bones way,” says Sheila of her garden when the couple moved to Mapleton Hill in 1994.
Then, the garden sported a scarlet maple, an ash and two overgrown beds bordered by railroad ties. “A lot of things had passed their peak, and there was a fair amount of bare space,” Sheila recalls. The carriage house was crumbling, and an alley fence inconveniently had to be opened each time a car went in or out. The ash and the alley fence had to go, and the crumbling carriage house, with its dirt floor and horse stalls, became a garage after some wrangling with the historic preservation board (the Dierkses’ 1902 home is a designated historic landmark).
Peter built a dog-ear picket fence and a half-moon gate that lined up with the new garage. “We had a dog, and we needed closure on that back part of the landscape,” Sheila explains. After completing that, Sheila got to work on the garden. “We made it a French intensive garden, which was important to me,” she says. She had the soil analyzed and dug down two spades deep. Then she replaced the excavated dirt, layering it with nutrients and compost. “You can plant seeds really close together, and then allow the leaves to shelter the soil so drying out is not as much of a problem,” she says of the French method.
Sheila grew a vegetable garden to feed their brood of four, and planted broccoli, green beans, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs and other veggies.
The Invisible Web
As the kids grew up and eventually moved away, Sheila found her garden aging alongside her. “We don’t have the appetites and the full-time eaters that we had when we moved to this house. We had four kids at home then; we needed a big vegetable garden. Now we’ve got the Farmers’ Market, and I don’t need ’em both,” Sheila says. So the formerly magnificent vegetable garden transitioned into an equally awesome annuals garden, with the accompanying tasks of deadheading, mulching and watering.
Then a life crisis forever impacted Sheila—and the garden. “I got run down by an ambulance in New York City, and it shattered my right elbow, which was my weeding elbow, and it was March.” Her elbow was rebuilt, but “I recognized it wasn’t my year for gardening.”
Enter Sandy Swegel, a professional gardener who honed her skills for many years at Starts & Copeland. Sandy has cared for Sheila’s garden for the last eight years, and “she is phenomenal,” says Sheila, who often tosses out adjectives like phenomenal, fabulous, wonderful and gorgeous when referring to her garden.
When Sandy came on board, Sheila was recuperating, running her book-publishing company, Woven WordPress, and planning to return to graduate school. “Between the company, school, the accident—you know, your life changes. And with any major change in your life, because it’s all an invisible web, your garden changes.”
With Sandy’s expertise, the garden transitioned into perennials and shrubs, with a few annual pots and an herb plot. “The basic plan at the moment is nice shapes, nice textures and low work,” Sheila says. “I’m crazy about the plants we have.” But don’t ask her to name them. “I’m not real crazy about names,” she admits. “I don’t worry about that a whole lot.”
What she does think about is having a good mix of plants that bloom in all seasons, with pleasing colors and fragrances. A brief walk-through reveals hostas of all types, nicotianas, snow on the mountain, peonies, daphnes, a weeping cherry, columbines, veronicas, pulmonarias, hydrangeas, four o’clocks, honeysuckles, sweet peas, double-white geraniums, Harry Lauder’s walking stick, oxalises, cherry trees, barberry, variegated willows, a trumpet vine—“supposedly the biggest in Boulder County”—tulips, clematis, lavender, elderberry and a ground cover with “fabulous blue flowers that I don’t remember the name of,” Sheila says.
A gardener for 40 years, Sheila reports that her first attempt at gardening was caring for a greenhouse and a lush property they bought in Kansas City when she was 30 “and absolutely witless about the garden,” she says. “But you learn.” Later, she grew an all-white garden in New Jersey because Peter worked late and could only enjoy the garden in the early evening. “An all-white garden is really nice, because it’s visible at night. In Colorado, I do white geraniums and I do white zinnias.”
But don’t ask her to do yellow: “I don’t like yellow in the garden at all, so I don’t have yellow—except for the fact that there are yellow tulips right there,” she says, pointing to a patch of thriving bulbs. “Well, that’s because we bought them in Amsterdam and the package said they were pink with white edges. So there they are. But I won’t be committed to yellow!”
Her garden is also home to folk art, like the garden angel that hangs in the arbor and a fish her kids gave her that “swims” when the wind blows. She also has things her son Brian made for her, including a gigantic wind chime he crafted from a 7Up carbon-dioxide tank and gave to her one Mother’s Day. “He painted it, carved it and put a gong er in it, which is actually a rolling pin of mine,” Sheila says. He also gave his parents a housewarming present that sits in the front yard: a huge limestone boulder used for fence posts in Kansas that he bought from a farmer and had engraved with their last name.
Sheila, who is also an ordained Ecumenical Catholic priest, is conscious of Mapleton Hill’s close quarters and thus “shares” her garden with neighbors. “I think it’s interesting to have an urban garden, in which you live with the gardening of the people around you,” she says. “It pleases me.” So she shares flowerpots with neighbors along the alley and her clematis with neighbors to the east, as it forms the living fence between their homes.
Yet, of all the pleasant things in Sheila’s garden, Faye’s table is the most endearing to her. “There’s a lot of human memory associated with it,” she says, “and that’s special.”