Celebrating time and life Bob Butera and Marilyn Sifford exult in their teeming two-acre garden, where sadness withers away.

Posted: September 05, 2008

Only at the end of a long, cheerful visit with Bob Butera and Marilyn Sifford does a little sadness slip into the conversation, and then only with prompting.

We're sitting on a bench overlooking their woodland garden on almost two acres in Jeffersonville, Montgomery County, and Sifford is asked to explain her relationship to this splendid place.

"I've lost so many people in my life," she begins: a brother at 17, a sister at 22, both parents within three months, and still others, including her first husband, Inquirer columnist Darrell Sifford, who drowned while snorkeling during the couple's vacation in Belize in 1992.

"My philosophy is to really try to enjoy every day," says Sifford, 60, a retired business consultant with two stepsons who married Butera in 1994. "Being in a setting like this, it's really easy to do that."

Even easier for Butera, who grew up with seven siblings in the stone house he now shares with Sifford, one of seven kids raised on a tobacco farm in North Carolina.

At 73, Butera's a lawyer, a former marathoner, and the retired president of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, someone who traveled the fast lane for many years. He was president of the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils, chief operating officer of a major law firm, a state representative for 14 years, and a one-time Republican candidate for governor.

But fate has a way of tripping us up. No matter our quality of citizenship, depth of productivity, or lot in life.

The colon-cancer diagnosis came in 1993, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2001. Today, Butera, who has two children from a previous marriage and two grandchildren, is healthy, but changed in ways only those who have outrun a life-threatening disease can be.

"The garden is more important than it once was," he says. "It became part of a therapy, both physical and mental."

And that's it for sadness on this incredible summer day, one Sifford and Butera celebrate in small increments of a few minutes, an hour or an afternoon. They look neither back nor ahead.

Except in the garden, where they look every which way. As we chat and walk along, suddenly Butera stoops to yank an aggressive vine on one side of the path while Sifford drops to pull weeds on the other.

"I wish I had my pruners," she laments, crossing over to check on a sapling. Simultaneously, Butera moves ahead to deadhead something. They're like bees on a pollen trip.

All the while, conversation flows. "Honey, look at this," says Sifford, to which Butera replies, "Isn't that great?" By the time we catch up, they've zigzagged away.

Sifford and Butera have owned the house since 2002, when Butera's mother, Anna, died at 101. It was built in 1940 by his father, Harry, a Sicilian immigrant who became a successful real estate broker and civic leader in Norristown. Anna, known for her culinary skills, also tended the vegetable and flower gardens.

In a short few years, Sifford and Butera have transformed the house and grounds, which had become quite overgrown with Norway maples, multiflora rose and poison ivy. With guidance from Butera's gardening mentor and lifelong friend, the late Chuck Rogers, former curator of horticulture at the Philadelphia Zoo, they thinned the woods and planted 500 unusual trees and thousands of bulbs, shrubs and perennials.

Today, the woodland comprises a series of smaller, themed gardens featuring evergreens, roses, ornamental grasses, vegetables and fall plants, such as blue asters and pink sedum. There's a glen; a peach orchard; rock, cutting and hydrangea gardens; a native azalea walk; and an area destined to become a moss garden.

And then there's "the outdoor room," the dining patio behind the house. It's floored with Pennsylvania bluestone, covered by a wisteria-woven pergola and flanked by white 'Henryii' clematis and winterberry. On one side, the view is of pink rhododendrons; on the other, the romantic, Sicilian-style second-floor balcony of the house.

This place cries out: party time!

Sifford and Butera entertain a lot. Guests stroll the wood-chip paths, drinks in hand, as lively jazz from outdoor speakers fills the air. Neighbors and friends from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, where the couple are active volunteers, come often. So do garden tours.

Doesn't matter when you come. It's a year-round show.

Late winter brings witch hazel and winter jasmine. Spring is abloom with daffodils and redbuds, flowering cherry and dogwoods, native azaleas, rhododendrons and mountain laurel.

Then come Sifford's favorites: the 50 hydrangeas planted in the woods. Even in mid-August they're soft and lovely, the blues easing into pink, the pinks to white.

Summer's aflutter with Butera's (and his mother's) favorite, phlox, and lobelia and other bright perennials. The French-quartered vegetable garden overflows, and the woods are full of treats. How about a purple-leafed 'Summer chocolate' mimosa sharing a bunk with a chartreuse smokebush?

Seven colors of berries pop in the fall, a favorite with birds, who also have 14 baths to play in.

Sifford and Butera, both graduates of the Barnes Foundation's horticulture program, divide up the jobs. They have a watering system and someone who helps with weeding, but Sifford's the decider of what goes where; Butera's the planter. She does the 100 containers, he tends the orchard and vegetables. She prunes, he composts.

Together, they enjoy the family history that defines this place. Harry Butera built the outdoor fireplace. Anna's phlox are blooming still. Bob walks the same path all the kids took to school. And his large extended family loves to come home.

In every sense, Sifford says, "it's an affirmation of life to be in this place."

With that, she plucks a ripe white peach off a nearby tree, takes a big bite, and trips off toward the glen. Happily, it seems, for time's a-wasting.

Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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