She is a tiny woman with a giant heart and more energy than a nuclear reactor. Every day, Maria Wall races up and down serpentine paths that score the face of her emerald garden. The wooded site straddles a ravine precipitous enough to make a mountain goat blanch and beautiful enough to make a poet cry.
Step, Step, Step
Climbing has never bothered Maria. She grew up in the hills of southwest Italy "in a tiny town not even on the map between Napoli and Roma," she says. Only the piazza was level, and everything else was up or down. "To go to church was like a thousand steps," she recalls. "Step, step, step. My legs are trained."
Gardening was not part of her young life. "My mother would sew me a beautiful dress to wear to school. She would not allow me to get dirty in the garden. I make up for it now," Maria says wryly. "I'm always in the mud."
Eventually, her family came to America. Then about 25 years ago, Maria and husband Bill, an electrical engineer, moved with their two boys to their current home in Florence, Alabama. The house sits high above a slough that feeds into Wilson Lake and the Tennessee River.
Her garden began as a defensive measure. "I started raking leaves to keep things neat so I wouldn't step on animals," she remembers. "I also watered the ground to keep down dust. Pretty soon, I had green dirt, and somebody came over and said, ‘You're gonna have moss!' And I said, ‘Moss? What's moss?'"
It didn't take long to find out. Moisture from springs and shade from hardwoods combined with newly exposed soil to generate perfect conditions for moss. Lush, soft moss soon carpeted paths, dripped off rocks, and plastered fallen trees.
Mired in Muck
But the bottom of the ravine in back, just on the edge of the slough, remained a swampy mess. Garbage, vines, weeds, and mud choked it. Maria got to work. By herself, she cleaned out the weeds and garbage--enough to fill two barges. "I had waders on up to my chest," she says. Then she dredged the ravine's sides and bottom to remove the accumulated muck and also free a large spring at the far end. The free-flowing water flushed out the remaining gunk, leaving behind a pristine stream with a gravel bed.
Bringing the Ground to Life
Of course, Maria didn't stop there. Whenever she discovered a wet spot along the slopes of the ravine, she dug it out. Today, numerous rivulets and trickling waterfalls cascade into the main stream below.
Taming the Ravine
She collected rocks, too--hundreds of them--with which to create terraces to tame the ravine. She wrested them from the sides of the slough and piled them into a canoe that she pulled behind her. She also gathered driftwood that her son Frank used to fashion the rustic bridges, arbors, arches, and lean-tos that decorate the streamside haven. Son Bill helped decide where to place them. Naturally, she cut much of the wood herself, using a 14-inch electric chain saw. "It was so much fun, you don't believe!" she declares.
The Garden She Loves
Maria enjoys the work her garden demands even more than the end result. "I love maintenance!" she proclaims. "If I'm supposed to give one part water, I give three, because it is so much fun." Now we understand--she is as unique and memorable as the garden she loves.