The best way to experience North Side is off the beaten path. Ignore the streets -- the vistas exist down the alleys. It's deep in the hidden middles of neighborhoods that the personalities really come out. It's the backyards that keep the secret beauty. North Side isn't like other Richmond areas, where the front is all-important. Sure, homes here have curb appeal, but it's reserved you really get to know the place when you're invited in. Or when you sneak through those alleys. The Ginter Park Garden Tour facilitates some of these introductions.
If you do find your way in, you'll recognize something nearly mythic about the place and its people. In the stories that follow are three octogenarians who have seen these neighborhoods rise up, who've had a hand in the gardens they've built, who build still. Both Jean Reeves and Wayland Rennie have identical twins. Colleen Renaye's flower beds taught her important truths about human behavior. Bill Reeves put two ponds in the same place. It only makes sense that all of these people are the culmination of great stories which they like to share. Just make sure you come in the back way.
Colleen Renaye5004 E. Seminary Ave.
The thing about gardeners is, they have to know when to let nature have its way. When all the mulch or Southern light just isn't going to make a difference to that one shrub, you have to accept that certain things just won't work in your yard.
Well, it works the same way when you have animals. Especially the large ones. You just gotta let them have their way.
"I just tell people, 'You know, I gave up.'" That's Colleen Renaye. She has a backyard that's pretty slim on the flora, but it's all right because it's all in equilibrium with the resident fauna: Kearney, a Saint Bernard/wolfhound mix, and L.J. (Lumberjack), a full-blooded Saint Bernard. These are the dogs that normally carry little barrels of brandy to lost Swiss people in the mountains. Here in Richmond, though, they mainly race around said yard, minus brandy, which is why Renaye has let nature more or less take its course.
"A lot of people last year wanted to know how to cater their garden to dogs," Renaye says. All those folks on last year's garden tour with their own hounds and terriers and Labradoodles wanted guidance. What they got was a lot of mulch.
Around the perimeter of Renaye's yard, along the fence, the shrubs have been torn out, giving the dogs a path to tear around. "The important thing is that they have mulch paths," she says.
Renaye says dogs enjoy running along fences. "Oh, I need to have a circuit for these monsters," she says. "If you don't have a circuit, your beloved plants will be destroyed."
She also makes sure the dogs have someplace to go when tearing around the yard gets tiring. The red-tip photinias near the house have been clipped to create a canopy that the dogs can retire to. She also installed a sandbox under a tree for the dogs to dig themselves into cool in the summer, warm in the winter. Next to it is a picnic table that the dogs bound up onto like trained lions. There they bark at the world at large.
The whole thing is unusual, but not unattractive. It appeals to an order that makes sense for Renaye and her dogs. She works for a rescue agency that puts dogs into homes. That's how she got her own monsters. So there's your priority. The flowers fend for themselves.
"I have one flower bed, there," she says, pointing. "That's why there's a gate around it."
Now in the front yard, it's a different story. There are dogwoods and irises blooming, and more of her sculptures. It's mirrored across the street, at the house of Mary Burnett, an octogenarian who's been gardening for many years in this neighborhood. Renaye worked on her front yard too.
Ever attuned to animal behavior, Renaye noticed something interesting about humans when tinkering with her yard. She used to have a problem with passersby throwing trash and cigarette butts into her yard. But when she planted a bed along the front of her yard, that problem stopped.
"People will not throw trash in a flower bed," she says. In fact, she's noticed people change their walking habits, crossing the street to get a closer look at her beds.
"Unless I have my babies in the yard," she says. "Then they won't."
Jean and Bill Reeves
1609 E. Laburnum Ave.
A lot of Jean Reeves' stories include the phrase, "We were out here drinking wine when " That includes the time she and her husband, Bill, were burning cut pine in their chiminea and the billowing, though fragrant, smoke attracted a legion of firefighters, who informed the couple that the outdoor fireplaces were actually illegal.
So now the chiminea sits sheepishly in a far corner of the yard, near a large walnut tree that's been the bane of their existence, since Jean found out too late that walnut trees use chemical warfare, secreting a chemical called juglone that inhibits the growth of anything around it. This she learned after planting a whole mess of things in its shadow. She gives the various perennials and annuals about three years before the tree finally does them in.
But one of the annuals under that tree inspired a whole new enterprise for the couple when they were out here one time, drinking wine. A whole series of little weedy-looking plants had sprung up, and one night the Reeveses realized they were blooming, at high speed the blooms would wiggle and then out would come a flower. It was night-blooming primrose, and each of the plants would burst forth nightly for weeks. "We've gotta have people over here to see it," Jean said to Bill five years ago.
And that's how the couple is coming up on its fifth annual night-blooming party, in which guests come over and place their bets on whose plant will bloom first.
It's pretty unbelievable, the adventures that have transpired in this backyard. But the whole thing looks like some crazy fantasy anyway. The Reeveses have been married 10 years, and in the eight years they've been plugging away at the yard, they've created a true oasis: three large fish ponds, a dozen Japanese maples, and winding paths of sculptured concrete, all shaded by a generous European hornbeam. It's a lot to take in, which may be why Bill forgets many of the plants come garden tour time, even though the whole thing used to be asphalt that he pulled out with hammer and chisel, even though he planted so many of Jean's wild ideas.
It helps that Jean puts out labels. "It's kind of like a little cheat sheet for him," she says.
There's a lot for the visitor to see under the green canopy of the hornbeam (the tree has a twin, planted the same day in a pot, a bonsai version barely 2 feet tall, hiding along the fence). A lot of texture: the maples, the ground-cover sedums, sprouts of iris here and there, and the river birches, whose trunks are busily shedding the soft curls of bark.
But what would Eden be without a snake? Ah yes, the Snake Episode. It's a defining moment in the life of this garden. One Jean can't quite shake, even after two years.
Now, it's already been mentioned that Bill, even at 81, is accustomed to creating ponds and pulling up asphalt and pouring concrete. But sometimes he has to undo what's been done. That villainous walnut in the back, for example, caused yet more trouble by dropping its nuts into a pond they had back there, turning the water black. Bill had to fill that one up not too long ago.
But there was another pond that Jean happened to discover a 6-foot black snake residing in. She's no fan of snakes. She disappeared for a few hours after the encounter, and when she returned, she'd decided they were moving. Their conversation went like this:
Jean: "We're gonna go to a condo."
Bill: "You can't live in a condo."
Jean: "We'll live in two condos and knock down the walls."
Reason prevailed. Bill dispatched the snake. But Jean wasn't satisfied the pond was tainted. And that's how Bill ended up draining it, pulling up the lining and reconstructing the whole thing so that, essentially, there is a new pond on the exact same spot as the old one. This pond, once it's up and running, will be the quarantine for sick fish from the great colonies of koi and goldfish that inhabit the other ponds.
The Snake Episode hardly detracts from the serenity of the place, all the water burbling and moving, the pumps kept in a little house so all that is heard is the water.
"This really keeps a lot of the noise down," Jean says. It's hard to remember that Laburnum Avenue is not too many feet away. But the Reeveses are nothing if not visionaries.
"We actually drink too much wine and come up with these ideas," she says.
You see? But if that's how this paradise was born, who can criticize the creative process? Even if some ideas, like the proposed tunnel under the yard that would run all the way to the back of the lot, a garden bypass for their dogs, never quite made it past the design stage.
1401 Wilmington Ave.
Wayland Rennie seems pretty content to sit on his deck in the backyard, waiting for this whole blooming spring thing to get started. To hear him talk, though, you'd think this was the only time he's sat still in his whole life. He says it's his legs that slow him down now.
"Hell, at 75 I was still going like hell," he says.
At 80, Rennie sits here in his backyard, just a few doors down from the house he grew up in, waiting for nature to deliver as he's seen it do the many years he's lived here. He's waiting for the 150 alliums to spring up, those flowers whose eerie dried heads resemble what Sputnik might look like, or a model of the atom. He's waiting for the 250 Dutch irises. He knows he has the momentum of new life, of growth.
"I'm very greedy. I like to have flowers pretty much all summer," he says. He's got the cycles down, that's for sure. After the irises come the impatiens, and then the roses.
"Roses carry me right on through until it freezes," he says. So he depends on them, even if he can't always remember their names. "They're like pleasant friends I don't have to know too intimately."
One rose he remembers is the Paul's Scarlet, planted in 1942 by his mother when a friend of hers owned this house. It grows still. In another corner of the yard, two adjacent pines reach up 60 feet. Rennie says he remembers the day in 1970 that his daughter brought home the two saplings in Coke bottles from her first-grade class. Rennie instructed her to plant them there, nearly 40 years and 59 and a half feet ago.
Talking to Rennie, it seems he's always been here, as long as there's been a neighborhood. Or maybe it's more accurate to say it seems like he built the whole thing. He knows the habits of his neighbors and those of the possums and the great horned owl that lives a few houses down. He's a part of this side of town like few people can claim to be. He's grown huge trees. A street near Colleen Renaye's carries his family's name. The Rennies are all over town there were 13 in his generation who've scattered across the world. He says he's the only one left. But he was gone for a while too.
Rennie lived in Delaware for eight and a half years before moving back here in the early '60s, buying this house and planting the Atlas cedar that shades the backyard. "My twin lived here on Confederate Avenue, and it was a big magnet for me to come back and be near him," he says.
A daphne bush continues his greed for flowers by blooming for six weeks with a fragrance that carries all the way up the driveway. He regards the daphne, "from which the arrow was made that inflicted the fatal wound on Hektor." He's talking about "The Iliad" and a memory of a bush in Turkey he once saw when he was sailing there with friends, years ago. "Strange how those little things you carry along with you."
He's sailed with grad school friends around the Mediterranean, the Labrador, navigated New Zealand, up to Alaska, "from the mouth of the Amazon pretty much all around the Caribbean."
He sails still, practically every weekend, races with a crew of up to 12 people in contests along the Northern Neck, up where his twin lives now. It was the sailboat racing and his wife's keen ear that caused him to clean up his language. "We don't cuss and we don't holler," he says. "Why, that's almost un-American."
He raced against Ted Turner once, carried him, a year later, through the streets of Richmond after a night of drinking. "He was a wonderful conversationalist."
Rennie, like his yard, always has some blooming thing going on. He wrote a book: "Lewis Ginter's Richmond," about 10 years ago, with a friend. "I wanted a book that could be written and read in three sittings," he says.
But while the yard bears the mark of his handiwork, it is also evidence of his wife, who passed away three years ago.
"She helped design everything I did," he says. "I miss her guiding hand in that."
Like those pines, like that rose, that partnership was long-lived. "Not many people get 60 years," he says. "You can't be unhappy that you don't get more." HS