Friday, September 9, 2011

The Color of Inspiration

Every once in awhile you run into gardeners who are truly inspiring.  This was the case recently when I visited a garden in Pennsylvania that, for the past 48 years, has been lovingly nurtured and maintained by Merle and Beulah Cordell, a couple in their eighties who, by comparison, make me feel like a lazy slug.

My daughter Andrea first told me about this garden last year and several weeks ago we finally had a chance to visit it together, along with the three grandchildren. The Cordells live in a beautiful old stone farmhouse surrounded by the rolling countryside of south central Pennsylvania; an area that has been made famous by the Amish and Mennonites. This is where I grew up and so it all feels like home to me.  

Driving through this beautiful part of the country, it's easy to become mesmerized by the neatly kept farms surrounded by field after field of pasture, corn and soybeans.  After awhile it can all start to blend together leaving the senses a little blunted.  The Pennsylvania fieldstone houses, the brick-end bank barns, row after row of corn, the grazing dairy cattle, and the narrow winding roads can all contribute to a good case of agrarian overload.  One farm begins to look like another.  But there's no mistaking the Cordell farm.  It stands out like a sudden flash of color in a black and white movie. 

Many years ago a visitor to the Cordell garden gave Beulah a canna and she was immediately smitten.  Today, she grows hundreds representing over 20 different varieties.  In some spots they are packed together so tightly that they resemble the rows of corn that surround the Cordell's property.  There are also coleus, marigolds, zinnias and begonias of every color.  There's a border of hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) that practically encircles the house.  And there's a huge stand of elephant ears (Colocasia) that must be ten feet tall; enough to make Jack want to give up on beanstalks.  Beulah also showed me her geraniums which occupy the entire front porch.  Toward the end of the gardening season she takes a slip from each plant and roots it in a coffee can which she stores in her basement for the winter.  Then, in the spring, the new emerging plants take their honored positions on the front porch.  She has been cloning these same geraniums for 60 years!

Merle and Beulah maintain the entire place on their own and they spend about 6 hours every day in the garden.  Merle tends an enormous vegetable garden that sustains them through the winter while Beulah handles all the flowers.  They heat their house entirely with wood, so that chore falls under Merle's purview as well. When I asked Merle who was in charge of all the lawn mowing he said "Beulah won't allow me to bring the riding mower anywhere near the flowers so she does all that herself with a push mower." The soft spoken Beulah shrugged off this chore as if it were nothing, saying that "it only takes me about three hours to mow all the paths and I can then use the clippings for mulch on the beds." 

And I suppose, compared to some of the other chores, mowing the garden paths might not seem like a big deal.  There is, after all, the weeding.  And, in a garden of this size with the number of beds planted out, I can't even imagine it.  But, as Beulah says..."weeds like to grow in the summer, too!"  Then, in the fall, Merle and Beulah dig up every one of those hundreds of cannas, elephant ears, and other tender plants and move them into the basement where they spend the winter until they move them all back out in the spring!  And, speaking of winter... you would think it would mean a time to rest.  But not for Beulah.  When she's not gardening you'll find her in the basement at one of her two kilns firing her ceramics (there is shelf after shelf of her work throughout the house), or needlepointing, or finishing off yet another quilt.

The word has spread about this colorful garden situated among the Pennsylvania cornfields and the Cordells now receive hundreds of visitors throughout the course of the gardening season.  Just the day before we visited, a busload of 40 visitors showed up unannounced.  Yet, Merle and Beulah welcome everyone with a cheerful hello and a friendly smile.  They love to talk gardening and their garden is always open to those who want to enjoy it.  And if you decide to visit, I guarantee that you will be both dazzled and inspired!

The Cordell Garden
8979 Grindstone Hill Road
Chambersburg, Pa. 17202

For other Featured Gardenersclick here.


  1. This is fantastic! Made me gasp. If I have half their energy when I reach my eighties I'll be pleased.

  2. Wow, what inspiration and beauty. I can only hope to be so young some day!

  3. Hi Harriet and Mel,

    Aren't they amazing? And, the friendliest and most relaxed people you'd ever want to meet! Beulah moves around the garden, barefooted, as light as a feather, as if she has wings. I'm not sure what their secret is but, if bottled, I'd buy some of it!

  4. Absolutely amazing! Thanks for sharing their story.

  5. Hi Karen! Thanks for the nice comment and for visiting the blog! For our readers, Karen writes a great gardening blog from the garden she shares with Brian and their German Shepherd, Dakota (aka Silly Dog or, if you prefer, Dakota-wota-woo-woo) at the very fringes of the plant hardiness zones in Northeastern Minnesota.

  6. This is a beautiful article, thank you very much for posting it. I am Merle and Beulah's youngest granddaughter - a very proud one at that. My lovely Grandmother passed away on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013. It is amazing how many articles like these, our family has found. A lovely tribute.
    Thank you again,
    Ashlea (Cordell) Lowe

    1. Oh, Ashlea, I'm so sorry to hear that news. Your grandmother was such a lovely, amazing person. I remember the day that my daughter took me to see the garden for the first time, accompanied by my own grandchildren. I was totally amazed at what your grandparents had accomplished. I have vivid memories of your grandmother working like a dynamo, tending the garden in her bare feet, as she nurtured each one of the infinite number of cannas and geraniums. She and your grandfather, and the garden they had created together, were truly an inspiration.

      Your grandparents were so kind to us during that visit, inviting us into their home, serving us a little refreshment on a warm summer's day. Your grandmother showed us her beautiful ceramics while your grandfather played a game of pool with my grandkids. My grandkids still remember that game of pool! It didn't take long to discover that while you were in the presence of your grandparents, you felt a certain calm and peacefulness; things never seemed to be rushed, which made you wonder how in the world they accomplished all that they did.

      I was so excited about visiting the garden that I couldn't wait to tell my good friend, Tovah Martin about it, who after making the trip from Connecticut to visit your grandparents, was equally amazed by all that they had done, and wrote about them in Country Gardens magazine.

      I was born and raised in Chambersburg, not far from your grandparents, and my daughter and grandchildren, who still live in nearby Shippensburg, will be so sorry to hear this news. My deepest sympathies to you, your Grandfather, and the rest of your family. Your Grandmother will be missed...she was truly one of a kind!

  7. Thank you :-) ~Ashlea


Thank you for your comments!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...