A garden of giving for all to enjoy

Grapevines wreathe the front door of Betsy Alexander's house at 23d and Naudain.
Grapevines wreathe the front door of Betsy Alexander's house at 23d and Naudain. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2013

In another week or so, the sidewalk in front of Betsy Alexander's Fitler Square home will smell like grape jelly.

That's because the Concord grapes, now pale green and hanging from vines that snake along the wall and kiss the front door, will ripen to a rosy purple and start throwing off their distinctive fragrance.

Even without the sweetly scented ambience, it's worth stopping by Alexander's 19th-century trinity at 23d and Naudain Streets to look around.

Literally. Alexander likes it when people stop by to check out the landscape she has single-handedly transformed in every direction. Come, look up and down the block, cross the street, walk around the corner and back to the house. She's even set out a bench with a fountain for you to enjoy.

"A garden brings everyone together. It's a way to change the world for the better, especially in cities, which can be very harsh," Alexander says.

Purely for the love of it, just for fun, this self-taught gardener - who's also a Dumpster Diver, a pianist and composer, music teacher, artist and photographer, and co-owner of the YouTube sensation "Nora, the piano cat" - has been planting flowers, shrubs, and trees in pots (129), tree pits (15), and empty spaces for years. She's placed them in front of private homes, apartment buildings, and businesses, and, to make it look lived in, a vacant house.

"You have a house in the Poconos or a place at the Shore? This garden, for me, is my vacation. I'm just making choices," Alexander tells anyone who asks, "How do you afford this?"

And they do ask, because what sane person in this self-absorbed, hyperkinetic world would go to so much trouble for neighbors, let alone strangers passing through?

"She does it for the joyfulness," says Soonae Ko, owner of Deluxe Cleaners at 23d and Lombard Streets, where Alexander has planted a pot-forest of roses, evergreens, ivy, begonias, heucheras, and grasses on the sidewalk. Under a tree, she added succulents.

"She sacrifices time. She is eager to do everything. She is very respectful to me," Ko says.

Alexander has been gardening here on a small scale since 1999, when she and her husband, fellow artist Burnell Yow, moved in. Only in the last few years has she had time for a grander effort, having come off 17 years of caring for a sister with cancer and two parents with Alzheimer's.

They are all gone now. And while others in this situation might wish to avoid commitments of time and effort, Alexander, 57, has gone deeper into the giving column. "I knew I could not fix global warming or GMOs or wars and terrorism," she says. "I knew I could fix 23d Street."

It was no slum, but just before Alexander started greening things up, the economy crashed and the local flower shop closed. Suddenly, there was a discomforting level of weeds and trash there.

Speaking of trash . . . .

As a master scavenger, Alexander has unearthed all sorts of curbside treasures. She made trellises out of a ladder, an iron bedpost, and refrigerator shelves. She filled discarded mailboxes with lavender and rosemary.

She buys plants online and in person, often tearing through the sale bins for drought-tolerant, vigorous, long-term bloomers that can make it in the big city. Witness the $5 she paid for a pink rose of Sharon tree at the Berlin Farmer's Market, the $1 heuchera from Lowe's.

But when Alexander's artistic eye spots something like that coral-bark Japanese maple at Russell Gardens Center in Churchville, "I don't care what it costs," she says. "I just want it so much."

Alexander also divides perennials and roots annuals. At season's end, she gives the tender stuff away.

No room in the house, you see. It's filled with art, two grand pianos, and seven cats, including the famous Nora, whose keyboard antics can be viewed at Norathepianocat.com. ( The videos have drawn 30 million hits.)

Alexander can water and weed for up to five hours a day in the summer. But when asked how much money she spends on her extended garden, she had to look it up: $6,000 last year, including new fountains.

"My home is my garden and my art gallery and my place to create art and music," she explains, "so I choose to spend my money on those things."

Three years ago, Fred Fisher, who owns an apartment building on 23d Street, discovered "someone was planting beautiful things in a weedy area in front of my building, and I didn't know who the good fairy was."

Fisher found out soon enough and is so grateful that he has given Alexander about $600 over the years. "She bought the plants, she's watering them and maintaining them. I know what things cost," he says.

Others are more modestly appreciative. People throw change into the fountains. A stranger handed over $20. One neighbor dropped off a bottle of wine; another offered weaving lessons in exchange for Alexander's help in transforming her 22d Street block.

Plants, pots, vases, solar lights, and little garden statues have appeared on the steps. Anonymous notes, too, like the one that said: "This is so beautiful. Thank you."

Goodness comes in greater measure than those who would steal the orange candy-lilies or the pet water bowls, or let their big dogs "water" the flower-filled containers.

A lone dissenter complained that those containers would draw rats. "I've never seen a rat or mouse in my garden," Alexander says.

Jim Miller, a neighbor on Croskey Street, recalls his first encounter with Alexander: "I was complaining about people stepping on stuff, and Betsy said, 'If you're in the country, you get squirrels, deer, and rabbits. In the city, somebody steps on something. It's a trade-off.' "

That was a revelation to Miller, who finds inspiration in Alexander's eye for color and texture. "Every time I walk down there, I have to stop and look at something on her block. She does so much," he says.

Others can, too, Alexander insists: "Everybody can make an impact in their own circles, and then the ripples go out."

At that, the rippler-in-chief marvels at how fresh the purple passionflower seems in the heat, how glorious the hydrangeas look, and how calming it is when the fountain by the front door is bubbling.

"Let's go sit on the bench," she says.

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

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