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Growing a Backyard Eden

At home with Ventura Botanical Garden co-founder Midge Stork.

By Amber Lennon

Photo by Karen Parkhouse

Making the most of a relatively small space, the garden incorporates terraced landscaping and trellises to support flowering vines, fruit trees, and vegetables.

Some visions are a lifelong cultivation. Others appear to spring up suddenly when the conditions are just right. Midge Stork’s life has been full of both, and in the solace of her garden is where all her good ideas have grown. She and her husband, Dave, bought their Ventura home in 1959 as newlyweds, and the couple has spent the last 56 years there nurturing children, gardens, and an impressive list of community projects and organizations.

“You look for a need, and you fill it,” Midge commented while plucking dried petals from a camellia bush in her backyard. My time with her was punctuated by her spontaneous gardening—hands constantly tending leaves, buds, and blossoms. Like anything that is second nature, I don’t even think she knew she was doing it.

She casually led me on a tour of her garden, admiring new apricot leaves and garden beds brimming with herbs and veggies. “We really emphasize the indoor-outdoor aspect,” she commented, pointing to the panel of kitchen windows that separates the dining table from the blue blossoms of a sprawling plumbago outside. Just walking by, you’d never know that a personal Eden is flourishing in the backyard of her tract home. It’s a perfect representation of Midge Stork’s achievements—understated yet abundant. Between the artichokes and a trellised apple tree, she mentioned that her home will be part of Ventura Botanical Gardens Spring Garden Tour on April 25, 2015, as a fine example of maximizing small spaces.

Midge is one of the nonprofit’s co-founders, and she and Dave have toured botanical garden all over the world. While taking in the beauty of the Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wisconsin, Midge turned to her husband and asked, “Why can’t we do this in Ventura?”

So she and a handful of passionate volunteers gathered under the stars at the oversized table in Midge’s garden and formulated a plan to create Ventura Botanical Garden. “It’s been such a miracle,” said Midge. “In the first two years, 900 people gave us $100, and we had nothing to tell them other than we had a vision!”

In 2009, a few years into the development of VBG, the Storks lost their son, who—like his parents—was an avid plant lover. Through this tragedy, the Storks’ vision became even more meaningful, and their commitment to the project grew. With tremendous volunteer effort and the help of the Rotary Club, the Ventura Endowment Fund, and generous donations from supporters, the Ventura Botanical Garden was opened to the public in October of 2012.

The demonstration trail is lined with over 150 native plant species and crisscrosses the Grant Park hillside above the Ventura County Courthouse, offering spectacular views of Downtown Ventura and the coast. Many plans are in the works, including the development of the largest Chilean garden outside of Chile, three bridges, and more nature trails. On April 30, the VBG Board of Directors will go before the Ventura City Council to secure an extended land lease. “Things are going to be transformed through this celebration we hope to have on the 30th,” Midge said.

About halfway through our garden tour, she sat down on a bench beneath an enormous avocado tree and joked that she limits how much time she spends here because the falling fruit could “really hurt.” It’s an understandable concern, especially for someone who has been impacted by Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI. The Storks’ daughter was in a near-fatal car accident when she was 17, and in the years of recovery that followed, Midge and Dave recognized the need for a TBI resource and rehabilitation center. So they created the Brain Injury Center of Ventura County (braininjurycenter.org), which has assisted thousands of people since opening in 1998.

“We never dreamed we’d have trauma. We never dreamed of the botanical gardens. But through life, you just change,” Midge reflected. “Out of every tragedy, there are wonderful things that happen. You just have to live long enough to find out what they are.”

As Midge continued to identify the various gems in her garden—fig, pear, poinsettias, gardenias, roses, plumeria—her hands touched each one, as if the stories of her life were held in every stem, flower, and fruit. “[Gardening] is therapy,” she said. “I lose myself. It’s a wonderful outlet because you don’t think about anything else except the bugs and the dirt. I always said I loved dirt.”

Ventura Botanical Gardens:
7th Annual Spring Garden Tour
Saturday, April 25, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
See venturabotanicalgardens.com for tickets and detailed info.

A natural bouquet of Clivia flowers.

Midge Stork in her backyard garden, Ventura.

A flourishing cluster of low-maintenance succulents, including several varieties of Aeoniums and an Echeveria.

The Stork’s outdoor living room.

04-01-2015

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