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Everyday People: For Allen, a hillside garden is an adventure

A 75-year-old gardener tackles steep rock wall

Published on July 10, 2017 8:54AM

Last changed on July 10, 2017 10:54AM

Larry Allen double-checks the ropes that keep him safe as he works on the garden wall at the Astoria Senior Center last week.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Larry Allen double-checks the ropes that keep him safe as he works on the garden wall at the Astoria Senior Center last week.

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There are five tow ropes.

Three are attached to a metal guardrail and the fourth to the open door of the Astoria Senior Center bus. The fifth is wrapped around Larry Allen’s torso to form a harness.

“At 75 years old, I’m finally getting to do what I wanted to do,” he says as he bends down to pat the dirt around a patch of young sunflowers.

Over the past year, Allen has built a garden perched above the Senior Center, turning a rocky, weedy wall into a tiny gem.

‘Tied to a bus’

The retired civil engineer and real estate broker has always had a passion for gardening, but once swore he never wanted to do large, complicated landscaping projects ever again. “And here I am, tied to a bus!”

The Astoria Seniors Perennial Garden is not particularly large, but it is complicated. The garden beds, bounded by rocks, more or less follow the sidewalk as it rises with the 11th Street hill. Below and to the south of these beds there’s a shallow crescent of land and a steep drop to a driveway below. The rest of the garden is a hillside sloping up to the First United Methodist Church’s parking lot.

To access the garden, Allen parks the bus in the church parking lot, ties a rope to the bus and himself, then carefully walks down a well-worn path on the hillside, keeping his hands on the rope. As he works in the garden, he clips and unclips onto the ropes hanging from the guardrail above him.

Landscape to match

Allen served as president of the Senior Center for two years and was there when the center underwent an extensive remodel. He started the garden because the renovated building looked so nice. He thought it deserved a landscape to match.

“What do you think of me tying myself to the bus?” Allen had asked the center’s executive director, Larry Miller, when first trying to figure out how he would access the area and begin a garden there.

“Well, how would we do it?” Miller replied.

Allen bought red tow ropes at Deals Only and said, “Just don’t drive the bus off with me attached.” He told Miller if the bus ever keeled over on top of him — an unlikely scenario — to leave him there and continue with the garden.

“It will be like putting a ship into the ocean and creating a reef!” he says now, grinning.

He organizes the garden in two large binders. Bulbs were mysterious to him when he first moved to Astoria — he lived most of his life in the California desert — but he fell in love with daffodils. In his binders, he records what he’s planted and when; he slips seed and bulb packets into clear plastic pockets so he can reference the planting instructions printed on their backs.

From rock to blooms

The garden was all rock, no soil when he started. Now poppies are in their last spring bloom and summer flowers like dahlias are getting ready to put out flowers. His goal is to have a garden of perennials that overlap, as one plant fades, another begins to bloom. He’s let a patch of bright pink wild peas flourish. Every day he walks down the hill from his house to check the garden’s progress, to weed and water and build it bit by bit.

“This is what I want to do,” he says. “This keeps me healthy and happy.”

— Katie Frankowicz


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