Bill And Jodi Dawson's 30-Year Garden Project

Teresa Woodard

Garden professionals Bill and Jodi Dawson exchanged wedding vows 35 years ago at Franklin Park Conservatory. Since then, they have fostered a shared love of plants and nature at their home’s landscape in Galloway. Their one-acre property surrounds an 1870s brick schoolhouse and is filled with Bill’s favorite conifers and Jodi’s colorful annual and tropical plant combinations.

“We blend well,” says Jodi. “We divide tasks and respect each other’s expertise.”

The couple met in 1984 at Oakland Nursery’s Linden location, where both started their careers in horticulture. Two years later, they exchanged wedding vows at the conservatory’s Palm House when it was “an intimate jungle room with dirt paths,” says Bill. In 1992, he went on to stage the outdoor horticulture displays for AmeriFlora, the international gardening exposition hosted on 88 acres at Franklin Park that helped revitalize the conservatory and its surroundings.

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“It was my first touch with community gardening,” says Bill, who worked with the park’s 70 neighbors to install gardens in front of their homes leading up to the expo. After AmeriFlora, he stayed on at Franklin Park Conservatory and started the Growing to Green community gardening program in 2000 that has expanded from 12 gardens to over 300 today.

“The timing was right—with the local foods movement and push for nutritious eating for kids,” says Bill, who still works with the conservatory’s successful program.

Jodi continued at Oakland Nursery, where she rose from her first job as cashier to greenhouse manager and developed an expertise in tropical plants. She still works there. “I thought I’d be at Oakland only one year, then I just loved it,” she says.

During the peak season, she often works up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. “Every day is like Black Friday in May,” says Jodi, who confesses it’s hard to get excited about working in your own garden when you can’t move a muscle after a full day of work. But once work resumes a steadier pace upon the arrival of summer, she dives back into planting her own backyard.

The Dawsons discovered their property in 1988. Originally the Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal Church, the one-room brick building also served as a schoolhouse during the week for area children. “We were out looking for a house in February when Jodi was pregnant with our son,” says Bill. “When we arrived, Jodi walked around the house and fell in love with the arched windows, while I slid down to the creek. We both met back in the middle and said, ‘This is it.’”

Over the years, the couple has transformed the home and landscape, project by project. They rescued street pavers and used them to create a patio outside the kitchen door. They added three square raised beds and filled them with colorful leaf lettuces, peppers, tomatoes and pyramid trellises. They framed the raised beds with low boxwood hedges, creating an attractive, yet productive, patio border.

“These three beds feed us throughout the growing season,” says Bill.

“We don’t buy lettuce for weeks,” adds Jodi.

Since the house is on a corner, the couple transformed their landscape with two curbside views. On the busier south side, they created a shade garden that serves as an attractive privacy screen. Here, they planted weeping Norway spruce, Japanese maple, blue spruce, boxwood, redbud, tricolor beech, hostas, hydrangeas, magnolia and arborvitae, which now hosts a cardinal family in its branches. In the center of this shade garden is a vintage pump-turned-fountain that serves as a water source for the birds. They’ve also interspersed a collection of bird feeders and houses.

“Bill hand feeds the chickadees and nut hatches,” says Jodi, explaining how he patiently stood with feed in hand to gradually gain their trust.

Along the west side’s screen porch, the couple displays hanging baskets and impatiens. They add drama with large caster beans and banana trees. In the arched windows along the home’s north side, they’ve added window boxes filled with colorful annuals. Along the backyard fence by their charming red barn, Bill plants more raised beds with sunflowers, carrots, beans, garlic, potatoes and multiple climbing loofa vines.

“It creates a beautiful green wall, and I end up with 100 loofas to give away as gifts,” says Bill, regarding the vines on the fence.

On the hillside by the creek, which they call the back 40, Bill and his son created a bonfire pit and added thousands of daffodils and lilies over the years. They’ve also added a two-bedroom log cabin, or kiwi hut as they like to call it, to host his brother when he visits from New Zealand.

Gardening is not all roses for the couple. “My pet peeve is when Jodi brings home a single plant in full bloom and lets it sit in our holding area,” Bill banters. “I can’t just let it sit, so I end up planting it.”

Jodi’s latest purchases were two exotic tropicals— a Bismarck Palm and a Radermachera. Bill will likely be tasked with finding a place to put them.

Bill recalls Jodi’s complaints about planting a purple peony across the street in the Ebenezer ME Cemetery where he voluntarily plants and tends the landscaping. “Luckily, I can still see it out the kitchen window,” Jodi teases, regarding the peony’s location among centuries-old gravesites that include veterans of the Revolutionary and Spanish American wars.

“He’s bossy in the garden, but I’m a fighter when it comes to where we plant things,” says Jodi, explaining that she dislikes seeing exposed dirt, so she fills landscape beds to the brim. Bill, on the other hand, worries about plants overgrowing their space and getting in the way of mowing, edging and weeding.

“We work at it together, and somehow it all comes together,” she says.

Bill appreciates when Jodi keeps a lookout for additions to his beloved conifer collection, shares what she’s learning about tropicals or joins him in one of his many garden art projects.

Their latest project was a new barn door with an artful sunburst. It’s an example of the kind of creativity Bill expresses throughout the property. He may hang Christmas tree lights across the creek, spell O-H-I-O in buckeyes, stack stones in sculptures, create a face for a wig-shaped clematis vine or compose mandalas of flower petals and leaves. He’ll share his creations on Instagram @earth_art_bill and assemble the photos in annual calendars sold to benefit children’s art charities.

“There are times she [Earth] inspires me to create … most times I stand in awe of her creations,” says Bill on his Instagram profile.

When the couple isn’t working in the garden, they enjoy grilling and eating outdoors. “We don’t have to go to a restaurant patio, we have one here,” says Bill, who hopes to add an outdoor mud oven in the future.

For now, the couple shares their daily pleasure in gardening. “This is what’s so fun, coming home to see something different every day,” says Jodi. “It’s like a surprise each day.