Liz and John Shook lost their son Joe five years ago. That summer, their son Jeremiah began a stonewall project that has since evolved into a whimsical memorial garden; a garden that welcomes the community to come in, enjoy, and feel the spirit of their son for a moment.
I sat down with Liz, John and Jeremiah to talk about the evolution of the garden, which has seen many different phases since it began five years ago.
The beginnings of the memorial garden landscape
“The idea was Jeremiah’s initially … it started with his connection to stonework and creativity,” says Liz. “After that we got to thinking 'what are we going to do with it, and how are we going to integrate it with the surrounding landscape?'”
Liz says as they planned the landscape, it became clear that they wanted something they could share with the community in their small town. “Living in Williston, Vermont, there are a lot of people that knew Joe in Williston and that was a connection that we could have with them,” she explains. “I thought we could create something for our community because Joe was a giver – he just gave to people, he had a great sense of humor, he just was a big presence.”
Starting the healing process through gardening
The act of creating this memorial garden was also a way for the family to start healing together. “What does gardening mean? For me, I saw the garden as a place to put my energy in the healing process,” says Liz. “We were going to do something; we were going to work together as a family to create this garden and everybody has had a piece in it. “
Their son Jeremiah built the arc-shaped stonewall that surrounds the garden. “I like the way you sit in the garden and the wall almost feels like they are arms embracing you,” says Liz. Both she and her husband John have a background in horticulture and their other son Sam – Joe’s twin brother – helped by working the large machinery needed for various parts of the project. “It’s been a place for us to come together as a family and each be able to provide what we had to contribute,” says Liz.
Getting the community involved
As the memorial garden evolved, it became very much about the community’s connection to Joe as well. Their home rests on the bike path in town, which sees high foot, bicycle and car traffic at all times of the year. “We really wanted to make this a place people can stop and enjoy, pause for a moment and that’s where it evolved into a true community garden,” Liz explains.
And the community has done more than just enjoy the garden – after Joe’s passing, a group of people at Vermont Family Network (Liz’s work at the time) took donations and bought the family gift cards to local garden centers. “We held onto those for five years as the garden evolved and this year was the year we decided we were going to get a landscape design and put the beginnings of the permanent structure and plantings in place,” says Liz.
The landscape design
Marie Limoge, an award-winning landscape designer, designed the formal perennial aspect of the garden this spring. “Working with Marie was great. We did a couple of visits where she came out to the garden, looked at the site and interviewed us,” says Liz. “We wanted the garden to reflect Joe and tie in things he liked. The colors in the garden – pinks and purples – Joe loved. Then we added things we enjoy, like the water feature, so it was a nice exchange of ideas.”
The family all agreed that they wanted to stick with a less structured look and wanted a more blended landscape. They are not “formal garden” people.
After five years of mass planting daffodils and wildflowers, with Jeremiah adding a stone patio last year, they had lived with the garden for enough time to let it settle in. “We realized last year with the wildflowers and the sunflowers that some of the wall was obscured and we really wanted to make sure that it was a big feature of the permanent garden,” says Liz. “Marie’s design really highlights that and brings in the stone wall as a big feature.”
The garden features a variety of low-growing, low-maintenance perennials that highlight the texture of the wall, the water feature and the wooden stepping-stones. With a mix of shade and sun in the garden, Marie chose Hostas and Astilbe for the corner of the garden underneath the trees. The center of the garden, which gets full sun, features Ajuga, Coreopsis, Echinacea, Geranium, Daylilies, Coral Bells, Iris, Catmint, Creeping Phlox, Black Eyed Susan, and Scabiosa. In the front of the garden there are two large, sweeping rows of Sedum and Fescue Grass.
They’ve also added pockets of wildflowers throughout – our Northeast Wildflower Mix in the very front of the garden and next to their front door, as well as Cosmos on the outside of the wall and Sunflowers tucked in here and there.
Adding Joe’s character to the garden
After Joe’s death, the family went to five key people and organizations that were important to Joe and asked them to describe him using just one word. They then engraved these words into stones that are placed throughout the wall. “We have superstar, because Joe loved the stage and loved to entertain people, unforgettable, perseverance, “the Mayor,” and witty, because Joe had such a great sense of humor,” Liz explains.
On top of the engraved stones, the family added Joe’s character in different ways throughout the memorial garden. “Part of my thought about the garden is we wanted there to be a little element of surprise and fun, which is why we worked the words into the wall,” says Liz. “We’ve also placed tiny stone figures you can find [hidden throughout the landscape], and we’ve added little bells in the trees. So we hope there will be some whimsy and surprise in the garden, reflecting what Joe enjoyed.”
Reflecting on the present and future of the garden
Jeremiah says he likes to sit in the center of the memorial garden and feel everything around him. “I like sitting on the patio, in the center of the garden, watching things grow,” he says. John says that his favorite part of the garden is that it feels like a room. “A very comfortable room,” he adds. “No matter where you look there is something to see and I like it that way.”
“I want to say it’s finished but it’s not – nothing in gardening is ever finished.” - Liz Shook
So now that the majority of the perennials are planted, what’s next for the garden?
“I want to say it’s finished but it’s not – nothing in gardening is ever finished,” says Liz. “ I feel like we have a great structure we can evolve from.”
This fall they hope to add a bench in the front of the garden with an engraved stone that says “Welcome to Joe’s Garden.” They also are in the process of building a little free library that will nestle in with the plants by the sidewalk. “Again, we’re hoping that these things will get people to stop in and pause for a moment,” says Liz.