WEST MEAD TOWNSHIP — As she is on most days throughout the spring and summer and into the fall, Gay Foust Swartzfager was working in her garden when she had a stroke in July 2016. Through the three-week hospitalization that followed and months of physical therapy, returning to the garden was never far from her mind.
A year later, Swartzfager, 64, is tending to her plants once again with the help of her husband, Walter Swartzfager, 82. She’s not 100 percent, she says, but with Walter’s help she once again was able to host nearly 60 fellow gardeners for the recent monthly picnic of the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners of Crawford County club.
“It’s a passion,” Swartzfager said not long after the gathering. She and Walter were seated on the shady porch of the log cabin home they built nearly 40 years ago, taking a well-earned break after the preparations. The garden has to look nice when you’re showing it off to other master gardeners.
Like their elaborate gardens, that passion has grown impressively over the past four decades since Gay began with a single humble bed in the shape of a star. Tucked away behind a screen of evergreens along Route 77, the quiet oasis that now spreads over nearly half of their six-acre lot shows the result of decades of care that have followed from humble beginnings.
“I hated it,” Walter said of his wife’s first foray into gardening. “I couldn’t mow around it.”
But before long, Gay had moved on from the star garden to bigger projects.
“My husband made the mistake of saying you can have as many plants as you like as long as you plant them yourself,” she recalled.
Gay liked have quite a lot of plants, and quite a variety as well, it turns out. It wasn’t long before Walter came to like the expanding garden as well. For years, the two of them have picked up scores of different types of plants at auctions, often adding dozens of varieties of the flowers and shrubs that they like best.
They continually experiment with placement, doing all of their own landscaping. Today, the results range from water lilies in the one-third-acre pond they had constructed, to grasses, to too many types of flowers to count, as well as 40 types of trees they have added over the years. Between the wooden bridge Walter constructed over the pond and the house sits a smaller cabin he made so that Gay can paint or relax in the midst of all the greenery they have created. Within, the croak of a bullfrog that shares the pond with 10 koi and a variety of other fish can be heard.
Just down a brick walkway and past a circular arrangement of ornamental grasses, some of them reaching 15 feet into the sky, a fountain bubbles outside their living room window. As the couple leaves the shade of the porch to lead visitors around the garden, butterflies flitter around the certified pollinator-friendly garden. Seemingly everywhere are daylilies, one of Gay’s favorites. Almost 100 varieties can be found throughout their yard. More than 100 varieties of hostas, Walter’s favorite, are scattered throughout as well.
“It’s a beautiful garden,” said Ron Mennano, president of the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners of Crawford County. In addition to their gardening education programs, the group volunteers at the Crawford County Fair, tends the flowers and landscaping in DeArment Park and engages in a variety of other outreach efforts. Each member volunteers at least 20 hours each year.
“The Swatzfagers have a variety of plants that are unique to our area,” he said, citing several varieties of dawn redwood trees as an example. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Also gorgeous are the many perennial flowers in the garden — so many, in fact, that Gay shares the bounty.
“She’s been taking flowers out to our hospice house for years,” said Barbara Mulligan of Crawford County Hospice. “They are absolutely beautiful.”
Every two or three weeks during the spring and summer, Gay pays a visit with a half-dozen or more arrangements drawn from the garden.
“She would never really leave her name for us to properly thank her,” Mulligan said. “I think it’s just one of her wonderful things.”
The blooming flowers draw much of the attention from visitors, but trees have become more of a focus for the Swartzfagers in recent years. They have begun contemplating a not-too-distant future when they won’t be able to care for their many flowers the way they do now.
“It’s amazing how fast the weeds grow,” Gay said. “We’re not going to be able to take care of the garden all our lives.”
For now, however, Gay has accomplished the goal she set for herself a year ago and is back tending the flowers and the rest of the garden. She also accomplished another goal when she returned to her part-time work as an accountant during tax season. For now, the future is still a long way off.
More pressing are the concerns of the garden and the activities that keep them young, Walter said. While Gay was thinking about weeding and relocating some of the plants that had disappointed this summer, Walter was looking ahead to a number of trees that he would be cutting down and splitting by hand in the weeks ahead.
Losing plants or trees doesn’t sting as it used to when they first began, he said. Setbacks, like Gay’s stroke, can be prelude to recovery.
“We have so many now,” Walter explained. “We’re disappointed, but it gives us a chance to change the landscape.”
He and Gay paused as they walked down the garden path and looked at the scene around them.
“It’s a puzzle that keeps evolving,” he said.
YOU CAN GO
The Swartzfagers offer free private tours for small groups of 15 to 30 people. Those interested in a tour can contact them at 724-1067.
The Penn State Extension Master Gardeners of Crawford County offers a gardening hotline on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Anyone with gardening-related questions can reach them at the Penn State Cooperative Extension office, 333-7460.