Digging In

Donna Eure’s labor of determination, healing, and love.

by Janine Latus
photography by Keith Lanpher 

Donna Eure’s family and friends gather often around the long, candlelit table on the deck out back. Tiny lights sparkle from trees, flowers spill out of pots, the perfume of jasmine and ginger lilies blends with the smell of pine. Crickets and cicadas serenade, drowned out by animated conversation and laughter. The evening light shows day lilies and gerbera daisies and impatiens, but also torenia and pink indigo and rice paper plants, all surrounded by a zoysia lawn so old and thick it’s like walking on a sponge. Hummingbirds come for the flowers, herons take off from the water’s edge, raccoons shimmy down the bird feeder cable like firefighters down a pole.

“It’s like living at camp out here,” she says.

When Donna and her husband, Raeford, bought their home on one of the fingers of the Lynnhaven 14 years ago the 1½-acre yard was half lawn, half brambles and weeds. Oil and gas from Pinewood Road washed down a gully to the river. Camellia branches drooped to the ground, heavy with blossoms, and spindly daffodils struggled up through the leaves and needles and spiny gumballs that showered down from the trees. The deck was there, but just past it were rocks and fallen oak branches.

“It looked like a blank palette to me,” she says. “I just couldn’t wait to get in it and clean it up.”
For weeks she planned. The camellias needed to be limbed up, the poison ivy pulled, the rocks and debris hauled from around the deck, the yard relentlessly raked.

So she put on her gloves and got to work. Through the deaths of her parents and Rae’s she pulled and thinned and planted, the sounds of the birds and the water and the wind through the pines a form of therapy. It was therapy again as she recovered from throat cancer surgery that left her unable to speak for months, her frustration expressed in notebooks all over the house in ALL CAPS and exclamation!!! points!!!!, but also in the growing beauty of her yard.
Hers is a woodland garden; there are no right angles or sharp edges, only sinuous paths, curved like nature. On her hands and knees she laid turtle-sized stones, thousands of them, to form a dry creek bed that would slow the flow of road wash to the river. Her husband wanted to cut down the gumball trees but Donna insisted they stay – even though their spiny balls must be picked up and bagged by hand, a dozen yard-waste bags at a time – because she’d read that the trees were among the most efficient at filtering toxins from the runoff. She planted papyrus and Japanese iris where the slowed water sometimes made the ground soggy. On the other side of the house, where it’s hot and dry and sunny, she built a rock garden, with giant succulents and cacti, and birds of paradise in pots. Each area is a balance of colors and textures, feathery greens and fuzzy blues, blossoms drifting in the breeze and thick, succulent leaves standing firm.

In the spring there are blossoms, in the summer flowers, in the fall color and in the winter contorted tree bones and glossy evergreens. Donna’s garden is beautiful regardless of season.

She uses no sprays or chemical fertilizers; they would kill her bees and pollute the water. She composts her yard waste in a tumbler the size of a Prius and grinds bags and bags of oak leaves into a fine mulch that she blends with a little bit of ground granite – Gran-I-Grit – and a scoop or two of Rare Earth and organic fertilizer, shoveling it into a wheelbarrow and raking it in around her plants. She lugs 25-pound buckets of water out to the new plants she’s constantly digging up to give to family and friends or to donate to charity plant sales.

There is no grand plan. She rearranges plants the way some people do furniture.
“My husband says, ‘Why did you plant it there if you’re just going to move it?’ ” she says, “and the answer is, ‘I didn’t know how it was going to look over here, I didn’t know it would get this large.’ Generally I’ll try anything anywhere and kind of see what happens with it.”

Apple trees are espaliered up the side of the garage, each of them grafted to produce three kinds of apples. Blue clematis droops from a burgundy Japanese maple. A yellow Lady Banks climbing rose entwines with purple wisteria as both crawl up a black pine tree. Evergreen clematis, white chocolate vine and smilax – that North Carolina wedding staple – tangle up the stairs to the back balcony. Even in the depths of winter there are things in bloom.

“Donna’s is the total package of a garden,” says Master Gardener Demaris Yearick. “It’s pretty, it’s friendly to the environment, it has unique flowers and a fun homeowner. Her touch is on everything. How could you do better than that?”

Donna’s love of gardening came from her grandmother, who raised chrysanthemums and African violets on a farm in Dinwiddie County, where Donna spent weekends and long summer days, and every Sunday dinner. When her grandmother died Donna dug up her rose bush and sweet peas, her irises and daffodils and Lily of the Valley, and planted them at her home, on 84th Street in Virginia Beach. When she moved here to Linkhorn Park, she dug them up and brought them along. Her knowledge has come not from college but from seminars and workshops and books, but most of all from kneeling and digging and raking and taking care.

She has native plants but also things exotic and rare, like wild orchids and the Christ’s Cradle Flower, which blooms only at night.

She creates bog gardens – swampy blends of peat moss and sand that are watered only from her rain barrel – full of carnivorous plants like Venus flytraps and sarracenias, with their deep-throated pitchers and feathery flowers, both because they’re beautiful and because they amuse her grandchildren.

“They like to take a pine needle and put it in there to watch the flytrap close up,” she says, “but each little pocket only does that five times, so I have to stop them or they’ll kill the plant.”

She grows Tradescantia – what her grandmother called “kiss me by the garden gate” because of the purple smudge it leaves on your clothes if you get too close. There is a butterfly vine, gorgeous with its pod that looks like two wings with the seed as the body in the middle. It’s “out of zone,” which means it shouldn’t live in this region, but in Donna’s garden it does.

Her collection of native and rare plants – plus her warmth and generosity – brought busloads of fans during the 2006 Virginia Historic Garden Tour. As she prepared last fall for her daughter’s backyard wedding a group from England called, asking to see the garden.

“Come join the bedlam!” she told them.

This time her guests were friends of friends, but sometimes unconnected strangers hear rumors and must come see for themselves.

In 2010 she was given the Horticulture Award of Merit by the Garden Club of Virginia, and the Club Horticulture Achievement Certificate by the Garden Club of America. She’ll take over the presidency of the Virginia Beach Garden Club in June. She also is a horticulture judge for the Garden Club of America, an honor that comes after a process that took about six years of travel and workshops and study, yet she says she isn’t good at memorizing names. “I just go, ‘Wow, isn’t that a beautiful plant! Where can I put it?’ Boom! It’s in the ground and then I’m like, ‘What is that?’ ”
At 65 she is endlessly busy, but the place you’ll find her nearly every day is in her garden, planting and pulling, raking and pruning, pair after pair of pruning shears broken and tossed into a box, dozens of pairs of gloves worn to threads.
She’s also a buyer for Galilee Gifts and Books at Galilee Episcopal Church, and she volunteers throughout the community.
“Open your front door and there she is,” says Susan Gentry, a fellow Garden Club of America judge and member of the Virginia Beach Garden Club. “She’s thought of something you might need or enjoy and she’s right there with it.”
Especially if it’s a plant.

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