Garden brings smiles, solace to a Roseville widow

10/19/2013 12:00 AM

10/19/2013 1:57 PM

One of an occasional series.

Toni Lovish found solace in a sunny spot outdoors. She kept going as her garden kept growing.

“This garden was my lifesaver,” she said as she looked out from her redwood deck over a graceful waterfall. “I was alone. I could come out here – and dig. Without it, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Being alone was a new experience for Toni. She married when she was just 17, to Joe Lovish, a World War II veteran. He became a plumber and pipe fitter. Transplanted to Roseville from Illinois, the couple raised three daughters and created a loving home.

But then Joe became sick. He died in September 2007. The couple had been married 60 years.

“Dad had five strokes,” said Christina Jagielski, one of three daughters. “He was bedridden for years. Mom was always taking care of him.”

Lovish, now 83, had her own career as a credit union manager before she retired. She always retreated to gardening when she needed a creative outlet, or just a break. Her canvas is her Roseville backyard.

“When we bought this house, there was nothing but dirt,” she recalled.

That was 1979. Toni and Joe Lovish slowly transformed their bare backyard into a private oasis. In construction by trade, Joe hauled in real boulders, some weighing hundreds of pounds, to form the cascading waterfall and a large stone-lined pond.

Together, the couple planted young 4-foot pines and redwoods from 1-gallon cans. They layered a landscape full of flowering shrubs on terraces built with railroad ties that line the sloped property.

Now, those trees stand 100 feet tall. Nestled on their trunks and limbs, several birdhouses in all shapes and sizes welcome feathered friends.

“She loves birdhouses,” Jagielski said. “They’re everywhere. There are so many azaleas. In the spring, the garden is just full of color.”

In the nearby pond, fat koi bask in the filtered rays of afternoon light that play over the water like shiny leaves. The fish beg for treats next to a curved bridge.

Shaded by the towering evergreens, the dappled setting feels instantly soothing. Baskets overflow with bright pink, blue and purple petunias. Succulents pack more planters along the deck’s edge. Clematis and roses climb an arbor. In a sliver of sun, tomatoes thrive along with sweet potato vines and kitchen herbs.

The garden is also full of family memories. “This is where I got married,” said Jagielski.

How did the mother of the bride get ready for the backyard nuptials? “I used a hell of a lot of Miracle Gro,” Lovish recalled with a chuckle.

A hands-on gardener, Lovish still does virtually all the work herself. When a job is too big, Lovish calls Jagielski’s husband, Walter.

Other daughters Connie Akers of Roseville and Cherrie Conner of Pleasant Hill also offer support.

But for Lovish, the garden is a true labor of love.

“People say, ‘You do all that work yourself?’” she said. “To me, it’s not work. I just love to be out here – at least two hours every day except when it’s raining.”

Self-taught, Lovish learned by doing. “It’s just practice,” she said of her garden know-how.

Added Jagielski: “When I was a kid, she made her own gardening book. She cut gardening articles out of magazines and put them in an 8-by-10(-inch) binder. It was her own version of the Sunset Western Garden Book. ... Now, she’s like an encyclopedia of flowers.”

Lovish wasn’t a born gardener, although she knew it was something she really wanted to do.

“I was raised in Chicago,” she said. “When I was 4 years old, the place where we lived had no yard, no gardening room at all. I got a grape box, filled it with dirt and grew weeds. Everybody laughed at me, but I loved my weeds.”

That affection transferred to other growing things.

“When we came here to California, I told my husband I wanted to plant vegetables,” she recalled. “Corn, tomatoes, peppers ... it was a disaster! We had no tomatoes – all vine, but no fruit. The corn was all worms. Everything just shriveled up. So, I switched to flowers.”

After her husband’s death, Toni spent many more hours in her garden, doing her version of “dirt therapy.” Her life is now very full with travel and flowers.

The best part of gardening? “I really like the results,” she said. “The flowers are beautiful.”

Her advice is simple: “Put a plant where it likes to grow, and it will grow.”

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