Editor’s note: This story originally ran in November 2014.
The sisters sat on the porch as dozens of friends, neighbors and relatives fanned out on the lawn and garden beds in the late November sun.
The visitors, many of them children, dug the holes, dropped in the bulbs and smoothed over the soil – what Barbara Stiles calls “the donkey work.” Or maybe she meant mule, because that’s how it began 70 years ago when her twin sister Bernice and her husband, Rogers Wade, moved into the Sears Roebuck house on Gimghoul Road next to the university campus.
The previous owners had tended a victory garden, a guarantee of fresh vegetables during the war-strapped years.
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But by 1944 when the couple moved in, the victory garden was “absolutely dead,” Bernice Wade said. “It was a mess.”
“A man from Merritt Mill Road Road came with a wagon and his mule and plowed up the yard,” she said. Afterward, she planted a new garden and lawn between the front of the house and the road, which was still dirt then. “We had a small daughter,” she explained, “and we had to have a place in the front for her to be.”
In time, that “place in the front” became a Chapel Hill wonder, as Bernice Wade and later Barbara Stiles, now 99 years old, painted a living canvas of tulips, azaleas and other flowering plants.
Before long, members of the original St. Thomas More Catholic Church, when it was down the street, were calling on the phone or knocking on the door after prayer to to ask if they could take a closer look. Today, hundreds, perhaps more, visit each spring.
For three weeks in April, when the reds, pinks and violets peak, a small wood sign says in cursive lettering, “The garden is open.”
“We always said it was the Catholics that made us put the sign up,” Wade said. “At first they didn’t believe it, but now they do.”
The sisters grew up in a copper mining town in Arizona during the Depression and attended school in Flagstaff. Wade became a college professor and had two children. Stiles, who never married, traveled the world with the Red Cross and Girl Scouts.
When Rogers Wade, an early leader of Blue Cross and Blue Shield, became ill in 1978, Stiles moved into the house on Gimghoul to help out. She stayed on after he died the following year.
The sisters share stories, one picking up where the other leaves off, remembering long-ago details as if they occurred yesterday.
Earlier this month, Robin Holmes, who stays with them three nights a week, wore a big sunflower hat as she planted phlox.
The Chatham County resident met the twins on a visit with residents from the Carol Woods retirement community in Chapel Hill, where she works. Holmes also has a company, Toad’s Garden, with her husband.
“I saw weeds and asked if I could pull them,” Holmes recalled.
“We were working in the garden at that time, and we would have sworn there wasn’t a weed left,” Wade said. “And all of a sudden, we saw her pick this tall, tall weed.”
“I said, ‘You can come (back) any day,’” Stiles chimed in.
“Now we call her our other daughter,” Wade said.
They no longer do much of the yard work, but the sisters still run the show.
Holmes, who considers the garden a work of art because of the attention to detail the sisters give it, says she’ll be about ready to plant something when they’ll tell her where it needs to go to better blend in.
“They just blow my mind,” she said.
“Whenever they say that’s a white azalea (before the plant has bloomed), I say, ‘How do you know that?’” she said. “And they say, ‘Because we planted that in 1963.’ “
Eric Fish was weeding at a friend’s house nearby a few years ago when a neighbor came up and said the sisters needed some help.
He celebrated his birthday this month laying out some of the 1,400 bulbs for volunteers to bury in the rich soil. The bulbs have to be dug up after they flower or they’ll split into smaller bulbs that won’t bloom as well the following spring.
With planting well underway, the volunteers took a break, brought out a chocolate-frosted cake, and a group of children on the porch sang “Happy Birthday.” Fish lifted his son Michael, 4, into the air above his shoulders and together they blew out the candles.
The work in the sisters’ garden stopped being work a long time ago.
“They’re just super nice people,” Fish said.
The sisters, meanwhile, are already looking forward to another birthday party, set for April 18, two days before they will turn 100.
Of course, they’ll also have another reason to celebrate: a new garden.
“I guess each season I like it the best,” Stiles said. “We wouldn’t have lived to be almost 100 without the garden. It keeps up our energy.”
“It keeps us in touch with people,” said Wade.
Watch a video about twins Bernice Wade and Barbara Stiles’ Chapel Hill garden at http://nando.com/ms. The video, produced by UNC-TV and Our State magazine and narrated by D.G. Martin, originally aired in 2006.