Nancy Chenoweth (1936 – 2023)

I met Nancy via a Zoom presentation with the Montelindo Garden Club in spring, 2021. I was demonstrating how to divide and repot Cymbidium orchids. Nancy contacted me soon after, saying “I see you work with bamboo. I have a bamboo problem. Can you help?”

Nancy lived about a two-minute drive from me; it was hard to say no.

She did, indeed, have a running bamboo problem, a massive 60 x 15-foot grove bordering the seasonal creek behind her home. It was sending underground tentacles toward the house, under stands of juniper, rhododendrons, azaleas, and a massive weeping cherry, and towards neighbors on either side.

I’m still working on it.

Nancy also had a front and backyard filled with spectacular specimen plants, all non-native, consisting of a multitude of focal points, including around 60 container plants on her vast backyard deck — the latter all requiring hand-watering multiple times a week during the summer. The deck’s arbor groaned under the largest wisteria I have ever seen, a vast bulk of flowering biomass attempting to pull down the chimney on the adjacent roof.

Her collection of Japanese maples was dizzying, both as established landscape trees, as well as container specimens.

Nancy was an impulse buyer. She’d see a plant at a nursery, and fall in love with it, without regard of having any particular location in mind for it.

The she’d bring it home and tell me to find a place for it.

Nancy had employed a gardening team for a few years, but the crew leader wasn’t easy to work with, and was, sometimes, argumentative, most likely about the relentless acquisitions. I tried to work with him, but felt he resented my presence. Nancy fired him him early in 2023, and asked me to take over all work in her yard.

Nancy always had something for me to do. We argued about her maples, and how, and when to prune them. She’d purchase exotic and pricey dwarf conifers, then procrastinate about their disposition, and I would need to water them three or four times a week during heatwaves.

She asked me to prune a spectacular, established, windswept black pine, and the delicate, low-growing, manicured juniper surrounding it, both arrayed in the manner of a Japanese garden.

I had never worked with plants like this, at such a level. It was a challenge.

Nancy always trusted me.

Her trust motivated me, and made me a better gardener.

Nancy was more than a client. She was a good friend. She was born and raised in Illinois, as were my parents, and embodied so many of the admirable character traits of people from the midwest.

Working with her was a collaborative process, based in research, communication, patience, and, always, trust.

Plants brought her joy, even as her health declined, and my job was ensure the yard and deck remained a familiar source of joy. I never felt any pressure, only shared happiness, and satisfaction. And, although neither of us would ever feel her yard was perfect, or “done,” working with Nancy was always rewarding.

The photo above was taken in late July, when Nancy was in hospice for pancreatic cancer.

Just before the photo was taken, she grabbed my hand. and squeezed it.

It was the last time I saw her.

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