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Garden Guru: A small jewel in a busy thoroughfare

By John Porter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Just one block from the state Capitol Complex, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of restaurants, bars, fast-food and gas stations, an oasis of serenity and beauty is hidden in plain sight.

Vibrant irises and roses wave in the wind as passers-by hurriedly shuffle to and from the office. Daylilies nod their heads as locals pass through on their way for quick bite at a fast-food chain restaurant.

This park, in my opinion, is one of the prettier public landscapes in Charleston. There is care found here -- in the plant selections, in the placement, in the design. It is not until you read the signs and look down at the bricks at your feet that you find out why. The care comes from the fact that this is a garden with a mission, a garden with a cause.

Located at the corner of Washington Street and Sidney Avenue, the Living AIDS Memorial Garden stands as a quiet and beautiful testament to the struggle against a devastating disease. The organization's mission is that the garden serve as a memorial to those who have lost their battle with AIDS, to serve as a place of reflection for those living with HIV/AIDS, survivors and caretakers, and also to serve as a tool for bringing awareness to the disease and its victims.

The garden, which was developed and is maintained by a nonprofit organization of volunteers, set down its earliest roots in 1998. Since then, the garden has gone from an idea and a dream to beautiful reality, with a few bumps in the road along the way.

I have been to the garden a few times, passing through or even stopping to eat lunch at one of the picnic tables. It is really a beautiful, almost quiet, little spot stuck right in the middle of a business district. When I visited last Saturday, though, it was anything but quiet.

As part of the East End Yard Sale, the garden was the site of a plant sale to help raise much-needed funds for maintenance of the garden. Between frequent raindrops and downpours, folks walking by would stop by and pick out a plant or two. Most were gearing up for Mother's Day (they wouldn't have the benefit of my column on how to select Mother's Day flowers until the next day though). The plants were donated by Forren Soil, which is a sponsor of the garden, and several volunteers had shown up to help out.

Bruce Severino, who is the president of the garden organization, led me on a quick tour and filled me in on some history of the garden. There has been lots of support -- governmental, public and private -- for the garden. The majority of the funds for the garden have come through grants, and they have put the money to work. The city of Charleston also supports the garden by leasing the property from the state and providing things such as insurance.

There have been some rough patches too. There was a recent dust-up with a neighbor who didn't like the planting of bamboo near her property. (It turns out that it was a clumping, nonspreading type.) There was also a fence-line issue when the new McDonald's was built. But Severino, the volunteers and the garden have persevered.

There are challenges ahead for the garden. The impressive garden is sited in just 18 to 24 inches of soil that sits atop a former asphalt parking lot. It isn't a huge issue for the many perennials or bulbs, or even most of the shrubs. The trees planted years ago, as beautiful as they are, are having growing pains fitting into the limited soil depth. It is likely that the trees will need to be removed and replacements found.

There is also the issue of funding. Much of the support the garden has relied upon is no longer available, so the organization is looking for new ways to build both funding and interest in the garden. This spring plant sale was a start, and the group is looking at a fall plant sale and other potential events.

But for now, if you are looking for a nice, serene place to eat lunch, or reflect or remember someone who has suffered through HIV/AIDS, be sure to stop by this little garden. It really is a gem. The organization is also always looking for volunteers to help with the garden and the event, so it would be a great, worthwhile cause if you are looking to volunteer. You can find out more about the garden, make a donation or contact someone to volunteer by visiting http://livingaidsmemorialgarden.org.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573.


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