A Garden Full of Memories

Mary Gale’s Garden Is a Testament to Family and Friends

By Kathy Ursprung

Mary Gale pauses in her garden
Mary Gale pauses in her garden filled with memories. Her father’s hat, which she wears as she gardens, serves as a cherished reminder of him.

For Mary Gale, weeding is a labor of love and a journey into the past. She loves time spent kneeling in garden beds, grimy nails and knuckles, tugging at the tiny invaders.

“I just love the dirt,” Mary says. “I’ve always gravitated toward dirt. I’d rather be in the yard weeding than cleaning the house. I have friends who are the opposite.”

For Mary, the wedding is a trip back to a simpler time.

“As a kid, the only time I spent alone with Mom was when we were side-by-side weeding,” she says. “That’s what happens in a large family. We had seven kids.”

Mary’s father, who died earlier this year, is also not far from her mind in the garden. His old hat is her favorite gardening hat.

“He was a great gardener,” Mary says. “He loved to garden. I saw the joy gardening gave both of my parents.” Today, Mary creates her own joyful celebration of family and friends in her home garden at the top of Fourth Street Grade in The Dalles.

Mary’s brother Greg
A bird bath bought on the day of his death serves as a garden memorial to Mary’s brother Greg.

She moved into her two-bedroom bungalow four years ago and spent the first year improving the house. The yard was filled with overgrown, weedy juniper bushes, which she eventually had torn out, along with a 1,000-gallon oil tank.

“At some point, it did have a big garden,” she says. “I remember when I was a kid skipping by here to go down to the Bakitchen to get a maple bar. I just loved this house.”

Mary has placed her own mark on both the house and the garden in the past four years. Four structural artworks by metal artist Tom Herrera provide structure, including one piece, “The Circle of Life,” made specifically in response to Mary’s love of circles. The sculpture stands next to the circular patio that has become the home’s entrance and an extra living room.

“I use it all the time,” she says.

Meandering, terraced paths allow visitors to wander among the plants, while a pair of 1950sera metal patio chairs offer a place to pause and enjoy a broad view of the Columbia Gorge.

At the foot of the yard, a rusty wrought-iron fence salvaged by a friend blends seamlessly with Tom’s works of art and provides added definition to the yard. It fits as if designed specifically for that spot.

Mary’s bungalow in The Dalles
An eclectic garden filled with memories surrounds Mary’s bungalow in The Dalles

“For some reason, I’ve always liked metal,” Mary says. “I guess it’s because it’s solid and it ages. I like the natural, aged look because older is beautiful. People tell me I should paint the fence. I thought, no, I want to preserve the patina.”

Mary is a thrifty gardener. Many of the plants in her garden came from friends. Among those are more than a dozen plants added in memory of friends who have died.

A metal bird bath planted with succulents is a reminder of her brother, Greg, who died from brain cancer two years ago. Mary and her daughter were in Corvallis to be near him and, on the day he died, spotted the bird bath at a garage sale.

“They didn’t have it marked for sale, but I asked if they were interested in selling it and how much they would want,” Mary says. “They said, ‘50 cents.’ We brought it home and put it back together. It’s one of my memorials to my brother.”

Mary’s favorite garden piece isn’t a memorial. It is about people who are very much alive. One day when her children, Jessica and Andrew, were little, Mary had some concrete left over from anchoring posts. They put the concrete in the bottom of a garbage can and molded it with the garbage can lid. The children then added their handprints to the design and gave it to their mother.

entrance of Mary’s house
A Tom Herrera sculpture called “The Circle of Life” is mimicked by the circular patio leading to the entrance of Mary’s house

During the past three years, Mary says the garden has been “a flowing project.” A lot of friends have helped with walkways, getting rocks, and ideas.

“I don’t have much of a plan,” Mary says. “I just play with it, and if I make a mistake, I redo it.”

She does not care for clutter but admits sometimes it happens. When it does, she pulls back and starts to take things away. “I don’t want stuff around just because I have it,” she says.

“I don’t want it to be so orchestrated that it looks like a lot of work went into it.”

But for Mary, a gardener born and bred, it really isn’t work.

“Anyone who’s a gardener knows—it just feels good to do something that gives beauty,” she says. “When I stop having fun, I’ll quit doing it.”