Situated between parking lots and sidewalks on Riverfront Plaza is Libby's Garden, a 30-by-30-foot refuge of lush plant life. Inside, every inch is abundant with emerald foliage, big punches of color, climbing vines and tall stalks of flowers. One side is lined with hot pink Betty prior roses. Mixed in are spiky blue thistle, pink dianthus and a purple jackamanii clematis growing into the canopy of a vine maple. A stone path circles the interior of the garden, and an iron fence delineates the edge of the garden from the street. A ceramic sign bears the name “Libby's Garden.” The garden is one of the ways longtime Bend resident Elizabeth “Libby” McGeary contributed to the Bend landscape before she died in August of 2002.
McGeary, born May 21, 1923, and her husband, Dr. George McGeary, moved to Bend from Portland in 1957 to a house on Northwest Roanoke Avenue. McGeary, who was already a prolific gardener, transformed the surrounding land into an English-style country garden that garnered national press and regular visits from people who wanted to learn how to grow perennials in Central Oregon. Her garden was even featured in a Time Life Complete Gardener book.
She also operated Mint Hill Garden nursery at her home, where she sold perennials and herbs for more than 20 years. She grew things from seed under a grow light in her kitchen, and she also traveled weekly to Rokey's wholesale nursery near Springfield to buy plants to sell in the nursery. She earned the nickname Vinegar Lady because she liked to clip fresh herbs and flavor bottles of vinegar.
McGeary recognized the sandy quality of the soil in Central Oregon and heavily amended her garden beds. “I have thrown in many bales of peat moss and cubic yards of barnyard manure (readily available) plus all of the compost that I can get, into my garden, and I am still working at it,” McGeary wrote in a spring 1987 edition of the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon publication.
Alyce Sommerfeldt, of Bend, met McGeary at a master gardener class and became a close friend, helping McGeary in her garden three times a week, working in her nursery and traveling with McGeary to visit gardens elsewhere. “She needed a little bit of help in her garden because she was in her 60s, and it was about a half acre.”
Sommerfeldt fondly recalls the garden around her home and the diversity of plants she was able to grow. “She had an art degree, so everything was amazing when you walked in. She had plants in there that she'd had for 35 years. She had trellises, hundreds of day lilies, hostas that were huge, tree peonies. She had roses that were up in the trees. She also had a road that went through the property with alpine boxes and 45 kinds of chicks and hens. ~ She tried new things. ~ She did the structure (of the garden) first, so in each season there was always something different to see.”
McGeary's mantra was to plant everything in mushroom compost and water year-round. “Even in November there will be two weeks that are warm. Because our soil is sandy, the roots get desiccated,” said Sommerfeldt. To prevent the roots from drying out, McGeary would drench the soil around the plants and shrubs to help them get through the winter.
Sommerfeldt says she and McGeary amended the soil with mushroom compost so much that “we probably raised her land about 4 inches with it.” Mushroom compost is five types of manure used to grow mushrooms. After the mushrooms are harvested, the compost is scraped up and sold. McGeary used to have it delivered by the truckload. “Now it's like buying solid gold,” said Sommerfeldt.
In 1992, the historical Allen-Rademacher craftsman style bungalow home on Riverfront Plaza was saved from demolition, and Arts Central was slated to take over and renovate the house. McGeary, who was a member of Arts Central, drew up plans for a garden with a small group of people, including Sommerfeldt. “The original intent was that it be a teaching garden, to show people you could grow things here,” said Sommerfeldt.
In order to prepare the garden, they hauled carloads of mushroom compost to the garden site in five-gallon buckets. “We dug up plants from Libby's yard and brought them down,” said Sommerfeldt. The plot was equipped with one spigot, and McGeary would visit daily in the growing season and run back and forth with a hose to drench the garden.
Additionally, Sommerfeldt, McGeary and a few others started a garden study group. For the fist meeting they reserved a room in the library, and 85 people showed up, said Sommerfeldt. “Libby's big belief was, 'I give you the knowledge and you pass it on.' So that's what we wanted to do with our garden club.”
Sommerfeldt and McGeary tended the garden for 10 years. “She planted the plants and designed the garden and kept it going. When she was diagnosed with ALS it was just way too much for her.”
Maureen Klecker, an Oregon licensed landscaper, professional gardener and president of the Hardy Plant Garden Club of Bend, was a friend of McGeary's and worked on her home garden. The community organized a celebration at the Rademacher house in honor of McGeary's art and gardening contributions. “On that day (of the celebration), she took me out to her garden at the Rademacher House, and she asked me to keep this garden going and use it as a teaching opportunity. I told her I would,” said Klecker in an email.
The garden was dedicated to McGeary and named Libby's Garden in April of 2002, and the Hardy Plant Garden Club of Bend officially took over care of the garden, keeping it as a teaching and demonstration garden. Klecker and others began improving the garden. With a grant from the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon they installed an irrigation system.
“Linda (Williams) and I decided that the garden needed to evolve, and we dismantled it, storing all the precious plants at my home over the winter and we tilled the soil, and added a good foot of amendments. ~ After the irrigation was installed, the garden was planted out in the spring of 2003,” said Klecker.
Each year someone from the Hardy Plant Garden Club of Bend is designated as the head gardener, and that person's selection of perennials, annuals and bulbs shape the look of the garden. Volunteers maintain the garden's upkeep.
This year Lucinda Packard is the head gardener, and she says the planting scheme was all about succession. “We started with daffodils, then tulips, then the alliums came and now that it's hot, the perennials are coming on.”
The Betty prior roses are “a single layer rose that's extremely hardy and blooms all summer,” said Packard. The garden also includes aster monch, delphinium and hollyhock. Filling in around the flowers are ornamental grasses and hostas.
Additions over the years have included a metal sculpture by Oscar Spliid, a sitting bench and a trellis for the clematis. Klecker says that whoever happens to be in the garden working is assumed to be Libby by people passing by. “(It's) a comment that humbles us and is probably causing Libby to giggle a bit,” said Klecker.