State News

North Carolina man creates place of healing, beauty

Posted August 5

— Looking out at the hillside behind Harold Showalter's house in Etowah, it's easy to see the beauty of his ornate garden, evidenced in the lush pink, purple and orange flowers, manicured bushes and the thick hedgerow of Hemlocks.

What's not easy to see are the years of work, seasons of minor corrections and careful monitoring, frustrations and sweaty afternoons in the sun, little mistakes and victories that hide among the hydrangeas and azaleas.

Showalter, who has devoted the past 19 years of his life to the immaculate, terraced garden on the steep half-acre behind his house, sees it all.

He spends six days a week in his garden, which he meticulously constructed himself on the hillside behind his Mountain Valley Drive home. He's created a masterpiece with 23 terraces, numerous walkways and a dizzying assortment of plants.

He didn't set out to make any sort of particular kind of garden, he says — he just loves growing things.

"Because I've spent so much time here, I sometimes find I don't see what's in front of me," he said. He just does what needs doing.

He sometimes plays a game with himself while looking down on the garden from the back deck of his home, trying to transport himself and see the garden as if it were the first time.

"It speaks to me so much," he said.

For more than a dozen members of the county Extension Center's Master Gardener program, it was definitely a vision.

Steve Pettis Jr., Extension agent for agriculture, took 17 people from the program to see the garden July 7.

"I would say it's a very, very nice garden that has obviously had a lot of time spent on it," Pettis said, noting the extensive work that went into shaping the hillside. He said the construction of the 23 terraces is "quite a feat."

The class, too, was impressed, especially with the sheer amount of work, realizing that someone has spent a great deal of their life dedicated to that garden.

Linda Showalter, Howard's wife, said class members were astounded, pelting Howard Showalter with questions about how he pulled this part off, or how he managed another.

For his part, Showalter never participated in the Master Gardener program, though he did grow up on a farm in Northeastern Ohio, contour farming all kinds of crops.

In his garden, he grows tomatoes, blackberries, blueberries and more alongside his irises, day lilies, gladiolas, red-twig dogwoods, elephant ear, lavender and much, much more.

Showalter, 81, began working on the garden when he and his wife, Linda, moved into the house 19 years ago. He tackled plenty of challenges along the way, some of which he's still wrestling with.

An roadbed runs along the top of the hill, and once, a bear tromped through, collapsing an eight-foot section of one of his walls and stripping a beautyberry. He's filled in more than a dozen sinkholes and wrestled with water that won't flow on top of his rocked waterways but winds itself underneath them, through the soil.

That's only part of it, though. Linda Showalter says her husband likes the design and engineering too — the problem-solving aspect of it.

"If I've got an opening, I'm going to find a plant that's going to fit there," he said.

He's turned an old planter underneath the deck into a storage bin with a crank-operated lid, and is working on a catalog of his garden.

Three 300-gallon tanks and soaker hoses running through the garden used to keep the plants irrigated, but as the garden matured over about a half-dozen years, Showalter found they needed it less and eventually sold the tanks.

One thing he said he's definitely done a lot of is transplanting.

"I've made a lot of mistakes that people don't ever see," he said, before pointing out a patch of butterfly weed that didn't quite turn out the way he'd hoped. "I transplant like crazy most springs."

But the work comes with many rewards, not least among them the joy of looking through the nearly 30 spring catalogs he receives, having fresh flowers to brighten the house, and having people come enjoy the garden.

"I love plants, and they give back so much," he said.

As soon as Showalter began tending the garden, it began reviving him — body and spirit.

The year before, he had both knees replaced. Then, he said, arthritis "melted" his ankle, which was replaced in 2010.

Immediately post-op, an E. coli infection set in and Showalter would go on to fight through eight operations in four months. Finally, they took the replacement ankle out and put a steel rod in his left leg.

He uses a cane to help with his balance as he walks up and down the steep pitch of the backyard garden.

A couple years later, at a check-up, doctors found pancreatic cancer. A large portion of his pancreas was removed and a year later, skin cancer was discovered on his arm.

His diabetes complicated things, but Showalter says he's very fortunate in his recovery. He described his treatment as pretty brief, but with lots of checkups and other appointments.

In the past 10 years, he's also had a detached hip muscle and a shoulder operation, but his ability to bounce back, and his energy in working among the growing things, has not diminished.

The real help has come from the garden itself.

"I think that has made all the difference in the world — having something to draw you forward," he said. "An intention, a goal. A creative thing. I really, really benefited, even when I had to sit or crawl, I went out to the garden."

As soon as he could, he was building walls again, hauling rock in the garden.

"All in all, I'm a very fortunate guy who really likes life," he said.

He says the garden will keep him going to 100 and beyond. It serves as an outlet, and provides a meaning in life that he hasn't found elsewhere, even in volunteer work. He found that what he really needed most was to get back in the garden and get in touch with its healing.

"I think when you really have a creative thing that draws you forward and you love what you're doing, you just draw to yourself the healing and the potential for happiness," Showalter said. "It seems to me that this garden represents so much of myself and so much more than anybody else would ever know."

Working with hands in the earth, sustaining the mutuality of plants and people, is important.

Showalter said he hopes people can find inspiration in the act of gardening to overcome any type of disability or trouble, though he doesn't consider himself disabled — not by a long shot.

"I'm 81 and I'm strong," he said, even though "I may limp and I may hurt."

Not to mention the sheer beauty of it.

"Oh, the beauty," Showalter said. "Oh goodness, the beauty."

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