Shirley Walton, second from right, with fellow gardeners at the Tel Hai Community Garden. (Photo by Pam Baxter)
In July 2018, I received an email from a woman named Shirley Walton, who wrote: “Here in our Tel Hai retirement community’s community garden, we plant for the birds, bees, and butterflies, as well as vegetables. The butterfly weed makes a nice addition to our garden and encourages the Monarchs to visit and multiply. We invite you to visit.”
Always interested in exploring new gardens, I accepted Walton’s invitation and made the 25-mile drive from Kimberton to Honey Brook Township, where Tel Hai is located. I had been promised a pollinator garden and I wasn’t disappointed. Everywhere I looked among the flowers there were butterflies, primarily monarchs and black swallowtails. Bees, too, were foraging for nectar. And there were plenty of vegetables—the pride and joy of the gardeners, who invited other residents to stop by and harvest a few veggies.
As has often happened for me over the years, this initial visit was the start of a deep friendship with a fellow gardener. I visited again the following year, after Walton submitted an entry in my “Gardening for Pollinators” contest. She wrote, “The Tel Hai Community Garden has a new facelift this year and has expanded from being a butterfly garden to a pollinator garden. Knowing how important pollinators are for our fruits and vegetables that are growing in our garden, we have created a haven for them.”
Walton explained that the volunteer team of about twenty resident gardeners had selected dill, fennel, and butterfly weed as hosts for butterfly larvae that feed on the leaves of these plants. These were growing among nectar-producing zinnias, sunflowers, and echinacea. To make the haven complete, the gardeners had added a colorful bee and butterfly drinking dish along with a small water feature.
In addition to that first column in 2018, Walton and her cohorts inspired me to write about the Tel Hai gardens in 2019 and 2020. And in February 2022 Walton accepted my invitation to write a guest column while I was recovering from hand surgery. She shared how she had passed on her love of gardening to her children and grandchildren, and how this was now being passed on by her grandchildren to her great-grandchildren.
Visiting the Tel Hai community garden had become an annual event, one that I looked forward to tremendously. I always gained so much inspiration from these senior gardeners and returned home re-energized for my own gardening efforts. When an email to Walton went unanswered last summer I was disappointed, but knowing how many activities she was involved with I didn’t think much of it. However, when I received no reply to a second email that I I sent recently, I called the office at Tal Hai. To my great sadness, I learned that Walton had passed away last July.
This is how I remember Shirley Walton: generous of spirit, enthusiastic about life, interested in sharing the things that interested her, and encouraging others to take part and expand their field of vision. (She was the one who inspired me to raise monarch butterflies.)
I also remember her boundless energy. For my first visit, Walton had encouraged me to “wear comfortable shoes,” adding, “We old ladies will try not to wear you out.” It was a good advice; after touring the community garden, Walton led me on a walk to see several other residents whom she’d encouraged to try raising monarchs. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but Walton—perhaps 15 years my senior—led me uphill and down, talking the entire time, never once pausing to catch her breath as I huffed and puffed trying to keep up with her, scribbling notes as we went.
Shirley Walton was truly one of a kind, and her passing leaves a big hole for me. For those of you who never met her, I wish you could have known her in real life, beyond the boundaries of this column.
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Share your gardening stories on Facebook at “Chester County Roots.” Pam’s nature-related books for children and families are available on Amazon, at Amazon.com/author/pamelabaxter.