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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Life blooms in the garden of Stiles

August 14. 2013 9:59PM
Janet Stiles does some hand trimming in her deceased husband's garden this week, with daughter Carolyn and son Tom. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)

ON FRIDAY, the remains of lifelong Manchester resident and cheerleader Walter Stiles will be committed to the earth. That will happen to us all eventually, and we will be fortunate if our run is as long as that of Stiles, who lived into his 90s.

Few people, I'll wager, will be as welcomed by the soils of our Granite State as Stiles will.

Stiles had many faces: a gregarious salesman; a proud Marine veteran of World War II; a father of three; a civic booster who spearheaded efforts to restore City Hall.

Add to that, landscape artist, the real kind, the kind that creates a landscape. Over decades, Stiles converted a good-sized lot (0.4-acres) in the North End from an ordinary lawn with a few trees into a landscape worthy of a Monet canvas. Leaves of different shapes and texture shade a maze of brick walkways, stone walls, iron railings, even a Depression-era caretaker shed that Stiles saved from sledgehammers.

"You hear about people who patted plants on the head. He was one of those. He loved plants," said his widow, Janet, as she gave a tour of the family lot at Sagamore and Russell streets this week.

Stiles caught the horticulture bug as a 5-year-old, when a housekeeper taught him how to plant a seed, his family said. A flower emerged, giving blossom to a love of all things green.

He took some horticulture classes in college and worked for landscapers as a young man, even putting his touches on the city's own landscape gem, Wagner Park, the family said.By the time his children arrived in the 1950s, Stiles had devoted himself to creating his own garden. He spent a couple of hours in the garden in the morning, ate breakfast, went off to work, returned home, then labored in the garden past sundown if need be.

On a high slope, a locust tree — its dome-shaped canopy like that of a lofty elm — commands the high point of the garden.

The growth steps down to mature sentinels of maples, birches and conifer, offering a comforting shade to smaller ornamentals — Japanese maples, dogwoods and crabtrees. The vegetation cascades down to bushes of holly, lilacs, rhododendrons and mountain laurel.

Finally, the ground pools with lush vinca, pachysandra and fern. Not a blade of grass can be found, and the only flowers are the short-lived variety that perennials offer. Stiles nurtured not only plants on his lot; he nurtured an appreciation of plants among his lot.

"When I was in fourth grade, I could tell the difference between a maple and oak. He taught me so much about plants," said his daughter, Carolyn Stiles.

That appreciation was evident as Carolyn, her two brothers and Janet walked through the garden this week. Mid-sentence, they would grab and dismantle an intrusive stalk of forsythia or haphazard fern.

The garden is somewhat overgrown, they apologized, blaming it on an abundance of rain and the absence of Walter.

Janet Stiles said her husband loved finding Manchester objects — cobblestones, fire hydrants, bricks — for his garden. He often got them free.

In his salesman's fashion, Stiles would approach people — a city foreman, a hard hat tearing down a mill — and ask "What are you going to do with ...?"

He acquired thousands of bricks that way, as well as the caretaker's shed, which was built by the Works Progress Administration. Sometimes people would approach Stiles with goodies, such as when Public Service of New Hampshire suggested he visit a field of mountain laurel in Bedford before a line crew sprayed it with pesticide.

As they speak about his garden, his children pledged it will be kept up. Tom Stiles, who lives in Warner, bemoaned that the job is nearly a full-time endeavor. But not to worry, in these says of mourning his deceased father, the garden is running on auto-pilot.

"It's almost like a rain forest," Tom said. "This place is so fertile, everything grows out of control."


Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and He can be reached at

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