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GC Top Gardeners: Bob & Doris Zumwalt

By Victoria Advocate
June 7, 2012 at 1:07 a.m.

Doris and Bob Zumwalt, of Hallettsville, have what they call a cottage garden with a lot of little gardens that make up their front and back yards.

By Jessica Rodrigo

Take a trip down North Ridge Street in Hallettsville and passers-by are sure to see beautifully manicured lawns and flowing flower beds.

Under the watchful eyes of Bob and Doris Zumwalt, their yard blooms with snapdragons in yellow, pink and white, tall larkspurs and bright foliage in the spring and in other seasons, there might be shades of red and purple, dark rich greens and more.

The Zumwalts live in the original home built by Bob's grandfather in 1893. Over the years they have carefully restored the home as well as the garden, which has stayed in his family ever since.

"We are still using their plants," Doris, 74, said proudly. "We have flowers that Bob's grandmother planted that are still growing even now."

Doris said she learned a lot about gardening from her father when they were living in Brooklyn and had to learn how to use the limited space they had. Despite her father's belief that she and her sister weren't picking up what he was teaching, she walked away with the ability to grow gardens in every climate they lived in.

Before the couple restored the home and nestled into retirement in Hallettsville, they lived in Europe and across the U.S. Bob's work with Exxon lent them the opportunity to travel a lot and while he was off working, friends might find Doris digging in the dirt.

"She is very strict with her plants," Bob, 78, confessed. If there is a plant that isn't doing well, she'll pluck it from its place and throw it into the compost pile.

Behind their home in an open yard with several beds bordered by landscaping posts and St. Augustine grass, stands a compost bin nearly the size of a parking space at your local grocery store.

Between the sheets of metal, there is a rich mixture of soil and organic waste from the plants and last night's dinner. This is where the Zumwalts say most of their success in the garden hails from.

"It's like the garden grows and wants to be beautiful," Doris said.

Between the two of them, Bob is the engineer, by profession and by retirement, and Doris is in charge of planting the beds.

"I'm bigger than she is. I have more weight, so I do the first digging," he said standing over his wife of 52 years. "After that she does all the digging."

Doris, who is also an active member of the Hallettsville Garden Club, said she is always looking for new plants to grow in her colorful garden.

"I never know where they will go, but once I get home, I know," Doris said.

Family: Bob and Doris Zumwalt, married for 52 years. Two sons, Fred, 51, is an IT specialist and lives in Austin; Andy, 48, is a robotic controls specialist and lives in Lake Orion, Mich.

What are your favorite things to grow in your garden?

I guess my favorite plants are those that grow well and contribute to the beauty of the garden. It's a huge list.

I especially enjoy discovering new varieties that will thrive in the Lavaca County area, such as almond verbena, mellow yellow hibiscus, yellow and red cestrum and senecio Kilimanjaro.

Most of these plants were introduced at Hallettsville Garden Club plant sales and are now staples for gardens countywide. That said, I also have a particular fondness for gold mound duranta, copper plants, holly ferns, fatsia, variegated ginger, foxtail ferns, turks cap, purple leaf hibiscus, New Zealand flax lily, Wheeler's dwarf pittosporum, color guard yucca, esperanza, Sandankwa viburnum, flame anisacanthus and crape myrtles.

Has gardening taught you any valuable life lessons? Gardening is a strict disciplinarian. It has taught me the value of thorough preparation if you want to maximize your rewards (although in my enthusiasm, I find myself sometimes cutting corners). All gardeners must be optimists as well as realists. And it has kindled in me a great joy of even the little things in life. I rejoice over each new bud I discover; the emergence of each new "volunteer" in my spring garden (larkspur, cleome, periwinkles); the glory of the garden when all the beds are in peak florescence; the young monarch caterpillars as they make their way from our butterfly weeds to pupate on our back porch wall. I've also learned that very little can be achieved without Mother Nature's help.If you could change the climate to grow any plant in your garden, what would it be and why?We have maintained gardens in all types of climates wherever we have lived - in Normandy; London, England; Northern New Jersey; and Baytown before coming to Hallettsville. We have discovered many wonderful plants that we could not take along with us. Were I to select one, I think it would be the beautiful astilbe, with its airy, feathery plumes and fernlike foliage, which grows so effortlessly in the cooler temps and acid soils of Northern New Jersey.

But I've discovered that wherever you go, you find wonderful new plants particular to that area that fill you with as much joy as the ones you left behind.Are there any specific reasons why you garden? Many serious gardeners are very artistic, creative people with an eye to color, texture, form and design. For me, working in the garden is one of my creative outlets, besides quilting. I am always looking for the perfect plant for the perfect spot - if such a thing actually exists. It also gives vent to my need for organization. I rarely cut the flowers from my plants - I hate to see the unity of the garden destroyed. Gardening is also a way to meet similar minded people to share your joys, your failures and successes, your new finds and your aches and pains. For me, going to a nursery is akin to a child going into a candy store. Being able to live among all that beauty gives us great satisfaction. We also garden because our home, built by Bob's grandfather in 1893, has been inhabited by generations of gardeners, and we are doing our part to keep up the family tradition.What is the biggest problem you have come across while gardening?

Gardening in Lavaca County is the most difficult I have ever encountered because of the heavy clay, the alkaline soil, either drought or too much rain at a time, and especially the hot sun. It is a continuous struggle to work to ameliorate these conditions and to find great plants who thrive in those particular conditions.

The movement of the summer sun particularly creates problems for shade-loving plants when it penetrates through the trees even a short time. I am constantly moving plants to other locations to give them a chance to succeed.

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