Taking a Roll Through the Garden

He’s confined to a wheelchair, but that doesn’t keep this neighborhood resident from his urban oasis

It’s impossible to walk your dog, go for a run, or drive by 9916 Cloister without stopping to admire David Smelley’s garden. More than 1,000 ferns, trees and blooms flourish in the tropical oasis he has cultivated in Casa Linda Estates, and the sheer sight of it elicits stares, whispers and brake lights.

Especially when passersby realize that the man responsible for such a glorious plot of earth is confined to a wheelchair.

“I get the impression that some of them admire the fact that I keep as much done as I do,” Smelley says.

In the spring and summer, he rolls through the garden every morning to find out what his plants need — a trick he learned while working in the nursery business.

“You never set your mind to what you’re going to do the next day. That walk-through in the morning tells you what you need to do,” Smelley says. “Punching holes in the ground and planting seeds is relatively easy. The real key to keeping it all growing is that constant monitoring.”

Smelley was introduced to the nursery business at Alexander’s Gardening Center in Oak Cliff during the mid-’70s. The owners nurtured his curiosity about plant growing, and Smelley’s own trial-and-error efforts filled in the gaps to teach him most of the propagation skills he uses today.

He knows, for example, that begonias will reproduce if he trims their leaves and plants them in the earth, or that stobilanthes will proliferate if he lops off a stem and buries it in the ground, or that impatiens must simply be pinched off and placed in moist soil.

“Every plant and every type of plant has a different way of multiplying,” Smelley says. “In my garden, I don’t have a big budget to work with, so a lot of what I do is pick and choose the plants that I want at a nursery or catalog — the ones that I know I can propagate. You spend $10 on two so that you can have 30 or 40 the following year.”

That’s how Smelley coaxed his garden to overflow with Gerber daisies, passionflowers, morning glories, split-leaf ivy, hibiscus, porcelain berry and dozens more. He began his work in the early ’90s after he moved in with his mother, Julia Morris. It was a car accident in 1981 that shattered Smelley’s spine, making him a paraplegic. He managed on his own for a while, but after a decade of surgeries, Smelley decided he needed help. His mother gave him free reign over the yard, and she has grown to share her son’s passion for plants.

“You have to understand — these are David’s children, and that makes them my grandchildren,” she says. “We’d spend our grocery money on plants if we had to.”

The garden today is the culmination of the last 15 years, Smelley says. It began with only a crop of Japanese maples and an unusually hearty batch of palm seed.

“I started with 200 seed and got about 190 to come up,” Smelley says. “I lucked out that time. Since then, I’ve gotten only five out of every 100 to come up.”

Morris says anything her son touches will grow, but Smelley modestly denies this. He says he can’t grow house ivy — a plant others consider “the easiest thing” — because he always waters it too much. The reason he is successful with other ferns and blooms is because he doesn’t give up on them. The Hawaiian ginger that now climbs to heights of seven feet was planted in four different places over a period of years before he found its sweet spot.

“It’s a willingness to keep doing the trial and error thing until you know exactly what a plant wants,” Smelley says.

It’s partly the challenge that drives him. He describes himself as someone who likes to “push the envelope” by attempting to cultivate plants that don’t normally thrive in Dallas. He also deals with the challenge of toiling in garden beds while sitting in his wheelchair, which requires him to bend over at a 90-degree angle. It also necessitates a planting strategy.

“You have to work backwards,” he says. “Otherwise it’s like painting yourself into a corner when you’ve painted a floor.”

That’s why he likes beds that can be accessed from both sides. And he has other tricks — a dolly system for his hanging plants and a long-handled shovel that helps him dig up weeds and saplings. But it’s much more than the challenges that propel Smelley outside each day — it’s the connection.

“It’s a cop out to just say I do it because I love it, but that’s true. I think really what it boils down to is I feel some kind of kinship with nature. In ancient times I would have been called an elemental person — very in tune with weather and changing seasons,” Smelley says.

“It’s a constant flow that you have to keep up with. It’s part of a reason to keep going.”


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