For three weeks every April, sisters Bernice Wade and Barbara Stiles throw open their gate and invite the world to share the beauty of a project it takes them the other 49 weeks a year to create. At their house on Gimghoul Road near UNC's Chapel Hill campus, the 90-year-old twins have created and nurtured a masterpiece of a garden for nearly three decades.
In the process, they have brought to life a spontaneous community gathering place and a touchstone for flower-lovers from down the street and across the nation. Senior citizens come by the busload; preschoolers arrive with their teachers and paintbrushes in tow; neighbors lucky enough to live within strolling distance appear along the sidewalk from sunrise to dark.
"They are just the center of this neighborhood, and they give this neighborhood all of the spirit that it has," says author Pamela Pease, who lives around the corner. Pease immortalized Wade and Stiles in a 1998 children's pop-up book called The Garden is Open.
The book's title came from a sign the sisters made for their gate, which they post every April when the dogwoods start to bloom and their garden approaches its peak. The sign arose out of necessity years ago, the sisters say: Before they posted it, they were constantly interrupted by strangers on their stoop asking if it was all right to come into the yard.
"It was to preserve sanity," says Stiles, sitting in her sunny parlor on an unseasonably warm fall day, a big fluffy cat at her feet and a mug of coffee in her hands. "I'd have a big pot boiling on the stove or I'd be settling down for a nap and the doorbell would ring. It would be people from Asheville or somewhere, saying, 'We heard about the sisters' garden and we have to see it.' And you can't say no."
"And we don't want to," Wade quickly interjects.
"Right, we don't want to," Stiles agrees cheerfully. "But, I like my nap."
The garden actually began to take root in 1944, when Wade moved to the Gimghoul Road house with her husband Roger, who was then heading up the Franklin Street office of a little insurance company called Blue Cross and Blue Shield. After growing up in Arizona and attending teachers' college together out west, the sisters had parted ways during World War II. Wade moved to the Triangle to marry and had two daughters while also pursuing an academic career, eventually becoming the first white, full-time professor at N.C. Central University in Durham in 1964. After her husband retired, the two traveled extensively.
Stiles had set out to see the world during the war, first as a Red Cross volunteer working with recuperating GIs in central Africa, Egypt and Germany and later as a leader with the World Bureau of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in Europe, Latin America and Japan.
"I got itchy feet," Stiles says with a grin.
In 1978, when Wade's husband became ill, Stiles came to Chapel Hill to help. Wade was widowed the next year, and since then the two have settled down in the house and guest cottage on Gimghoul Road, where they've transformed the little garden where Wade's daughters posed in bonnets each Easter into a big garden with many fans.
"After traveling for many years, our garden is our source of energy now," Wade says, showing off photo albums and scrapbooks spilling with the vibrant colors of their garden in full flower, along with newspaper and magazine clippings about their project. "We still do all the planning and the planting of the small stuff. But we don't do the wheelbarrowing any more."
This fall, with help from the grandson of a fellow garden enthusiast, they planted 2,000 bulbs for next spring's showing.
("You don't find many 19-year-olds who know that much about gardening anymore," Stiles confides. "But we would tell him exactly how to plant one azalea bush, how far in the ground and everything, and we wouldn't have to tell him again for the next one.")
The garden draws visitors from near and far. In addition to local senior citizens and students from the Carolina Friends Early School just down the hill, the sisters receive a Cary newcomers garden club, master gardeners from across North Carolina and tourists from way out of state. One new family that just relocated to their neighborhood from Chicago announced upon introduction that they'd been told by friends back home how lucky they were to be moving close to "the sisters' garden."
They've given so much pleasure to their neighbors over the years that this spring, in honor of their 90th birthday in April, the neighborhood association launched a project to give them something back.
After some fund-raising and about 80 hours of volunteer labor by neighbors and N.C. Botanical Garden supporters, "Sisters' Corner" was dedicated to Wade and Stiles in late October. It's a scenic little wooded spot on the corner of Gimghoul and Glandon roads, with benches and a plaque acknowledging their contribution to the community and offering a gateway into Battle Park, a public network of wooded walking trails and green space that was founded by former UNC President Kemp Battle in the late 19th century.
"President Battle was a big proponent of getting students into the woods and back to nature," says Steven Keith, the curator of Battle Park for the N.C. Botanical Garden. "The sisters have a welcoming spirit and they share that same vision--they want people to get into the garden and get out and enjoy nature."