When Marcena Dilley was raising her two children while working as a first-grade teacher in Ashtabula County, it was her late husband who planted and maintained their garden.
''He loved roses and would fuss over them all the time,'' Dilley said. ''We worked on some things together and I assisted with ideas, but I was not the gardener.''
None of that is evident now in the cottage garden Dilley designed and maintains at her home in Cortland. Judges for the 2011 Tribune Chronicle / OSU Extension Master Gardeners Amateur Garden contest also believe Dilley was an exceptional gardener when they awarded her first place in the annual contest.
Marcena Dilley, first-place winner of the 2011 Amateur Garden Contest, stands beside the Inukshuk pillar in her Cortland cottage garden. Inukshuks are creative stacks of stone intended to resemble a person for the purpose of herding caribou in northern Canada and Alaska. They also were believed to be built as landmarks for travelers.
Dilley, who retired from teaching after 35 years, went back to work as a tour director with Anderson Tours for another 20 years, traveling throughout the country numerous times. As tour director, Dilley said she has traveled to Australia, has gone on 15 cruises and made 14 trips to Alaska.
''One of my last years, I was gone 200 days,'' Dilley said. ''It was around then I decided it was time to stop.''
Dilley moved to Cortland in 2002 and immediately began working on the landscaping around her newly constructed home. When the patio at the back of the house looked too small, she called on a local landscaper friend to extend it, insisting it have curves. She also wanted a walkway, so she advised the landscaper to bring in stones to make the path.
''At first I thought the stones were too big, but when I started filling them in with plants, I saw they were fine,'' she said.
From her travels, Dilley learned of Inukshuks, stone pillars often covered with lichen or moss. Named by Eskimos and meaning ''like a person,'' the structures are thought to have several purposes, one of which was to herd caribou. When the animals saw the people-like stone structures, they would avoid them. The Inukshuks were placed in a way that eventually herded the animals to a spot where they could be ambushed by hunters.
Another purpose for Inukshuk, Dilley said, is thought to be landmarks for travelers or perhaps by explorers who used the stone pillars to mark the farthest places they recorded. Dilley's Inukshuk is one of several garden structures among the plants that line her walkway.
From her favorite vantage point on the curved patio, Dilley sits each morning with her tea and newspaper where she can look over the garden. In spring, tulips, hyacinths and daffodils bloom along the path. In summer she enjoys cosmos, coneflower, lavender and ornamental grasses. In late summer and into fall, blooming are sedums and her favorite plant, a tree, Heptacodium miconioides, commonly called Seven Sons.
Dilley's multi-trunked tree isn't commonly found in most backyard gardens, but when she read about it in a gardening magazine, she once again called on her landscaper friend to find a specimen.
A cousin to the honeysuckle, Seven Sons was named for its blooms that open in late summer in clusters of seven at the tips of the tree's branches.
''I try to get blossoms all year long,'' Dilley said. ''In winter, I think about what spring is going to bring.
''The bounty of my garden gives me strength.''
Dilley often refers to favorite quote she acquired from a from a magazine and attributes to John Riha: ''All lessons of life are in the garden. Birth, nurturing, growth, joy, sometimes heartbreak and ultimately a sense of hope.''
Unlike Dilley, second-place winner in the contest, April Bianco, of Warren, has always been a gardener.
''I started with my first apartment,'' Bianco said. ''I gardened in containers and when I got my first house, I started working the ground as soon as it thawed out in the spring.''
When she moved into her current house in the city in 2000, her goal was to create a backyard that didn't feel as though it was in the city.
''It was all gravel when I moved here,'' Bianco said. ''I raked it all out and had dirt trucked in. After that it was grass, but little by little, the garden started to take shape,'' she said.
Bianco and her husband made improvements to the house by building a sun room on the back and adding a swimming pool for their two sons. They installed the stone patio themselves, hauling the heavy pavers in a trailer and laying them on a base of crushed limestone. Bianco later stained the white patio stones a rich, sienna to create a striking contrast between the house and the deep, green lawn.
Along the curve of the above-ground pool, Bianco creates a border with tall ornamental grasses, perennials and annuals in containers. In the fall, she moves the perennial grasses to the now-empty vegetable garden behind the garage until spring, when they are trimmed and repotted again for the season.
Tall canna lilies grow among the grasses and lower perennials to give the landscape a tropical feel. Every structure on the property is bordered with the tropical-like big-leaved plants that asthetically pulls the landscape together.
Most of the work in Bianco's garden happens in spring, but once the containers are planted and the rest of the gardens mulched, she spends the rest of the season doing light maintenance, such as deadheading, trimming and watering.
''I'm always tending to the plants,'' Bianco said.
Although the main vegetable garden is behind the garage where the sunlight is brightest, Bianco also incorporates vegetables throughout her tropical garden. Vining grape tomatoes grow on a trellis on the patio and heirloom Italian pole beans fill out the arbors placed in the landscape.
Bianco, who admits she enjoys staying home and watching her plants grow, says her inspiration came from her mother.
''We had the worst dirt,'' Bianco said, ''but we always had flowers.''