A garden vision in Germantown

Sue Finch's shady, junglelike back- yard garden.
Sue Finch's shady, junglelike back- yard garden. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

Keeping it enchanted for 48 years

Posted: June 01, 2013

You enter Sue Finch's Germantown garden through a perfectly restored wrought iron gate that dates to the 19th century.

The gate and the fence it connects are sturdy and straight, a nice counterpoint to the frilly gardens in front of this white-stucco Victorian and the wavy brick path that leads to the back.

You follow that wave and pass through an arbor, taking care not to brush the overhanging azalea that's shedding pink petals all over the ground.

Once through, you wonder. Would it be so bad to be caught in the swirl?

Not at all, and Finch would love it if you were, for this is about as carefree a garden as you're likely to find. It is a testament to the live-and-let-live philosophy of its creator, who welcomes:

Plants that spontaneously appear, except for the evil ones. Birds and other creatures that live within it, slugs and squirrels being a notable exception. Family, friends, and neighbors, of course, and strangers who happen to be walking down West Walnut Lane.

"Come in," she says. "Come see my enchanted garden."

Susan Finch, Sue and Bob Finch's older daughter, remembers it exactly that way.

"I was 5 when I opened that gate for the first time, and saw that brick lane. It was like the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz," she says, recalling hours of happy play in the garden's walk-in dollhouse and a tree house in the ornamental cherry tree.

"It was a magic place to grow up. My sister and I had pink cottony blossoms all around us up there in the tree house," says Susan, 53, a New York actress and artist.

Eventually, the cherry tree had to come down, and the back garden, like the children who once played in it, is all grown up.

It's wraparound green now, intentionally junglelike, with skyscraper ash and pine trees, steroidal clumps of hostas, and mounds of shade-loving perennials. Paths of grass and bluestone meander through it all.

Finch has worked on the garden since she and Bob moved here 48 years ago, through three children and five grandchildren; through Bob's retirement from the Haverford School, where he taught art for three decades; and through two terrible scares - cancer of the tongue long ago and more recently, cervical cancer.

"This year, I said no more illness, no more high anxiety," declares Finch, who is also an artist.

She is 80, tiny and spare, with youthful hands and strong legs. Up and down the steps of her three-story twin she goes, and though she no longer toils outside for an entire day, she can still manage two hours, then - after lunch and a rest - two more.

Bob, 82, has always been there to "clean up the piles" of leaves, compost, and brush, and Finch prunes, plants, and rakes. But she recently hired a couple of garden helpers to do the heavy lifting.

She insists that she and Bob, married for 61 years, have no intention of leaving this house ever, and, at least for now, no thought of abandoning the garden she has nurtured for so long.

As long as strangers keep stopping to admire the pink roses spilling over the front fence, she'll leave the gate open and invite them in. Not anyone "strange-looking," and never when Bob isn't home.

The rest of the time, she can't seem to help herself.

When she spots a man and a little girl on the sidewalk out front, Finch waves and calls out, "Hi! How are you today?" He smiles and answers back, "Fine, fine. Good to see you."

But he's on his way. No tour today, which means more time for Finch to weed, and savor the quiet of this comfortable place.

"There is no right or wrong here. There is no one criticizing," says Finch, a self-taught gardener who acknowledges something others deny: "A garden can never be perfect."

She's not self-conscious about the goutweed, spiderwort, and creeping jenny that gallop through her garden. Instead of spraying chemical herbicides, she pulls them by hand or blasts them with a mix of white vinegar and liquid soap.

"Vinegar kills everything," she whispers, as if revealing a family secret.

Finch is also accepting of "volunteers," the euphemism for plants that show up uninvited. Things like wild raspberry and bleeding heart, lemon balm and butterfly bush.

And she coexists with stuff many gardeners hate - white clover, lily of the valley, English ivy, ajuga, and chameleon plant.

"You can fight it but you're never going to win. Better to just live and let live," says Finch, who lets many beautiful flowers live in her garden:

Mock orange, columbine, peonies, and hydrangea. Daffodils, chocolate mint, lilies, and iris. Hostas and hostas and hostas.

Out front, along the fence for all to see, Mammoth Russian sunflowers and candy-colorful zinnias will soon be blooming. Gardeners everywhere know they are among the most cheerful, and inviting, on Earth.

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

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