Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
Rusty hinges on an old wooden gate screech, and gravel crunches underfoot as Mariana Greene walks the stony path into the extensive garden that spans her backyard. A slight breeze rustles the leaves, and she brushes away the foliage that encroaches the path, speckled with flower petals from a recent storm.
Water dribbles from a small waterfall and splashes into a homemade pond that Greene passes on her way to a white patio chair in the center of the garden. She plants herself in the seat as chirping birds and crickets disturb the silence of the overcast afternoon.
Rocking back and forth in the chair, Greene surveys the garden and takes note of the tasks that must be completed. Overgrown foliage needs to be cleared, flowers must be deadheaded and the soil needs fertilizing. But the East Dallas neighbor doesn’t mind the work. Puttering in the garden is the only thing she wants to do anyway — at least until the mosquitoes come.
“I grew up from the beginning of my life as someone who loved flowers,” Greene says. “Even though I worked full time and raised a kid, on the weekends, I did nothing but garden. Now that I’m retired, I have more time to do that.”
When Greene and her husband moved into their house on Bryan Parkway 35 years ago, the backyard was a flat expanse of grass. But Greene wasn’t interested in growing grass. She dug flowerbeds until there wasn’t any more room. Then she added pot after pot to the space that eventually became an outdoor oasis.
“I was so foolish about biting off more than I could handle,” Greene says. “I spent so much money on plants and then killed them and had to replace them. I interviewed people who were successful gardeners. But everything I learned, I learned by doing, killing and reading, reading, reading.”
Her misadventures in the garden entertained readers throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area through a weekly “Gardening Fool” column that ran for about 10 years in the Dallas Morning News. But perhaps Greene is best known as a pioneer in urban chicken keeping.
Greene started keeping chickens in 2003, nearly a decade before city dwellers flocked to the trend. Although many people are drawn to the idea of free, local eggs and a humane alternative to commercial hatcheries, it was Martha Stewart who first piqued Greene’s interest in the 1980s by recommending chickens as excellent gardening companions in Living magazine.
Gardening companions they may be, but they can also be quite pesky, Greene says. When she works in the garden, she often has to break up fights that erupt over a tasty grub worm or keep a jet hose at the ready to spray at their heels if they attempt to eat her precious plants.
With eight pet chickens, trouble in the henhouse provided plenty of fodder for a monthly chicken column to run alongside “Gardening Fool.”
There was even some for her husband, Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze. In a January article, Schutze wrote about the time he came home to find his wife sampling mouthfuls of dried mealworms to feed to the chickens. Turns out, she was just toasting almond slivers for a salad. But his concern shows just how far Greene might go to pamper her pets.
“Even before Austin, Dallas was a very popular city for backyard chickens,” Greene says. “I’m happy to take some credit in that. I wanted to share the fun of them. The chickens are so goofy. They’re just entertaining animals to be around.”
For decades, Greene tended the chickens and her garden alone. To his credit, Schutze built the chicken coop, the pond and a pergola covered in his wife’s favorite heirloom roses. But it was Greene who planted, preened and protected the flowers from nemeses like squirrels, which dig up her bulbs before they bloom.
After a case of West Nile virus and encephalitis in 2015, Greene never regained her stamina. She now has a garden assistant to help her trim the plants and do the heavy lifting. It’s a service she says her husband is more than willing to pay for.
“My helper is very careful about not stepping on my plants and not breaking my flowers,” Greene says. “My husband doesn’t seem to notice. He plants his feet on something that’s about to bloom. That’s his way of getting out of the work. Although, he loves that this makes me happy. I miss getting to see different gardens and writing those stories, but it’s still a passion.”
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