Downtown Modesto garden is thick with history

What it grows has nourished generations

April 11, 2009 

Hollyhocks and four o'clocks.

Sounds like the first line of a nursery rhyme, doesn't it? And that's fitting, because as April showers bring May flowers, those hollyhocks and four o'clocks are among the blossoms that welcome visitors to Bob and Betty Cole's downtown Modesto home, which looks like it's straight out of a storybook.

A white picket gate opens to a brick walkway that leads to the front door and around the side of the house. Hanging on that front door is a straw hat, and on the front porch are a beautiful old bench, a rocking chair and a decoratively arranged small stack of firewood.

The roughly 1,000-square-foot house, sitting on a quarter-block of land at Burney and Lane streets, is a stop on Saturday's Modesto Garden Club Spring Tour of Gardens and Outdoor Living. It's also the oldest house in town.

The home was built in 1865 in Paradise by Luke Church, who was Bob Cole's great-grandfather. He used wood from a hotel that was torn down in Don Pedro Bar. Betty Cole, a steward of family history, said that when the railroad wasn't routed through Paradise as had been expected, Church loaded the house onto a horse-drawn wagon and brought it to Modesto in 1870.

Bob, 73, has lived in the house since he was a boy, and Betty's been there 43 years. On a recent morning, she was looking over letters from the 1880s and '90s that were written by, or to, Bob's grandmother Maggie, one of Church's daughters. Betty particularly enjoyed references to the garden. "I think we will have considerable fruit and lots of grapes," she read from one letter. "The orange trees are growing fine." From another, she read, "The beans are coming up."

Betty has made no big changes to the garden during her life on Burney Street. The front yard has been left "the way it's always been." You can see the same two rosebushes in a photo from 1902. There are plenty of violets, and the hollyhocks and four o'clocks come up every year without fail. Of the latter, which will begin to flower in May, she said: "They close up around 11 in the morning and open up at about 4 in the afternoon. That's why they're called four o'clocks."

The Coles' lot has many edible elements, too. Betty pointed out a pomegranate tree that a nurseryman told her was the biggest he'd ever seen. It, a walnut tree and a grape vine have been there at least as long as she has. Their plum tree is "over the hill," she said, but for nostalgic reasons, they don't remove it. When Bob was a boy, he caught some little girls spying on him through his bedroom window, so he insisted the tree be planted to block the view.

Betty has a steady supply of fresh bay leaves for cooking. She has grapefruit trees and an orange tree she cherishes. In the fall, she uses the fruit primarily for its zest, as the flesh isn't yet sweet enough; but by December, she enjoys a steady supply of freshly squeezed orange juice.

She has someone trim the hedges and, lately, mow the lawn, but Betty does most everything else herself. And with the garden tour approaching, she finds herself with more to do than normal, pointing to potted geraniums that still need to be put in the ground.

Garden tour visitors will see paperwhites and snowflakes flowering along the side of the house. In back, they'll see one of Betty's favorite spots -- her "moon garden." Backed by a black fence and a hedge of creeping fig is a poolside area of white wicker furniture and various white flowers. On a clear night, as the moonlight shines on the water, furniture and flowers, "it's just gorgeous," she said.

Another favorite spot is her "grandma garden," where her 5-year-old twin grandchildren, Sarah and Spencer, like to sit on the garden swing and have Betty point out different types of flowers. Two weeks ago, she said, it was solid daffodils. Now, it's dotted with centranthus, lavender, feverfew and more, with a border of carefully placed Spanish bluebells and alyssum.

She said she wishes everyone could have an experience such as hers, with the roots of her family history being entwined with the roots of her garden, being able to tell the story of the plum tree, seeing her grandchildren play around big trees planted by their ancestors.

"People always say, 'You're always working in your garden,' " she said. "I'm not working -- I love it! I could spend eight hours a day out here."

Saturday's tour is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will feature gardens of country homes, creekside landscaping, outdoor living areas and the Modesto Garden Club office. Tickets can be purchased at nurseries and other locations. For details, call 529-7360.

A member of the garden club since 2002, Betty Cole will serve as a tour docent at her home from 9 to 11 a.m., then again from 3 to 5 with her son Doug.

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