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98-Year-Old Gardeners: Time To Plant Bulbs

Most of us think about this time of year as about the harvest - the plentiful vegetables for our holiday tables. But for Chapel Hill's Bernice Wade and Barbara Stiles, this time of year means one thing - time to plant 1,000 or so tulip bulbs.

The sisters are twins, 98-years-old, and are known for the beauty of the springtime garden that surrounds their house on historic Gimghoul Road in Chapel Hill.  In recent years they have relied more and more on friends and neighbors - especially children -- to make their beloved garden grow. And planting day has evolved into a neighborhood party.

Emma smiles with bag of bulbs, Bernice in background
Credit Carol Jackson
Bernice Wade (far right) and 15-year-old Emma Brodey, planting day

Children choose a bag filled with bulbs - the tissue paper sticking out of the bag indicates the flower's color.

Each child gets a tiny plot of land in the garden, and they use spades to dig up the earth and plant the bulbs.

The sisters know every child who comes to help, and they save particular spots in the garden, and colors for individual children.

Greta Abbey knelt down
Credit Carol Jackson
Greta Abbey prepares to dig in her section of the garden

Greta Abbey has been helping out since she was six. She's now 13. "This is one of the greatest things on our block. They have this huge and amazing garden that everyone can walk through. I think it's really great that we can help make it more beautiful."

Bernice was especially concerned about Greta's selection this year. "Last year I was disappointed," Bernice said. "Greta's flowers didn't grow very well. So we chose a special [flower] for her. She's a great dancer, a ballet dancer. We got her "Blushing Lady". The flower is tall, big, open." Just as the sisters imagine Greta on stage, so should her flowers be.

In the springtime, the garden is awash in color. Pastels on one side, hot colors on the other. And the star of the "hots" are seven-year-old Patrick's orange tulips, very front row, right hand side.  The Biese family lives in the neighborhood and after the planting party Patrick regularly comes back to visit the garden in anticipation.  Bernice says, "We think he learned to read by reading each child's name tag around the garden!"


A child, digging
Credit Carol Jackson
About fifty children attend the planting each year.

Bernice has lived in the house since 1944. Barbara moved in with her twin in 1978. This year for the first time, they are planting in honor of great-great grandchildren. Bernice is in charge of mapping out the garden before planting. Each year she chooses old favorites, and new varieties. "We want new ones every year. There are so many hundreds we've never seen!"

And when the flowers bloom, Bernice sees more than color. "I do think about the people related to the flowers, I think 'Oh, he'd be so happy!'"

This year the ladies planted a special variety for their nephew who is fighting cancer. "He's wonderful. We planted "Big Smile" for him," notes Bernice.

In season, the sisters hang a little sign near the front path. When the sign says "The Garden Is Open," visitors are welcome to browse the front and rear gardens.

Barbara enjoys the flow of the color, and the memories of flowers she's seen in her travels throughout the world. "Growing up in Arizona, there were a lot of wild flowers. Our dad was from Nova Scotia. He planted trees in Arizona.  I remember this one time we collected a big bouquet of wild flowers. We were six years old. We gave it to a teacher and she scolded us. She said 'What are you doing picking those?' She was worried that the seed wouldn't spread, and we wouldn't have as many flowers next year. That was the best lesson we ever had. After that we were a bit more conservative," chuckles Barbara.


spades with dirt on them
Credit Carol Jackson
Spades at the ready

As they age, more and more of the physical work of gardening has been turned over to adult gardeners, people like Robin Holmes and Eric Fish. Eric has been helping since 2007. He has his PhD in Psychology and works at the University of North Carolina. "They first needed some help with their acorns, and it evolved. I like digging in the dirt. I find it creative. The sisters are lovely people. It's fun to be here." Eric comes by almost every day, just to do something small. Each weekend he spends 5-10 hours at the garden.

man and girl on garden
Credit Carol Jackson
Eric Fish (left) weeds with Navia Mosley prior to planting

Eric helped everyone on planting day, including Navia Mosley. Navia is a soccer player, and this was her first time in the sister's garden. Her mom Marilyn said, "I am here today because of these two wonderful and special women. I've come to know them in the last six months. I am their physical therapist and when you work closely like that with someone, you get to know them really well. They are like family. I hope that I will help continue their legacy."

The ladies have elaborate plans for their one hundredth birthday party. And yes, it involves flowers and friends and neighbors in the garden. Barbara Stiles can't imagine life without the garden. "We've made so many friends, our life is enriched by the people who love the garden."

Carol Jackson has been with WUNC since 2006. As Digital News Editor, she writes stories for, and helps reporters and hosts make digital versions of their radio stories. She is also responsible for sharing stories on social media. Previously, Carol spent eight years with WUNC's nationally syndicated show The Story with Dick Gordon, serving as Managing Editor and Interim Senior Producer.
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