Garden Heirlooms

Newport’s East Row Garden Club inspires with outdoor antiques

Gardening is not for the faint of heart. It is time consuming, puts dirt under the fingernails, and usually requires a little upper body strength. But the end result, when a green canvas spreads across the landscape and a rainbow of flowers bloom, is delicious. Gardening is a lot like collecting antiques, and just like antiques, a garden gets better with age. So it makes perfect sense that more and more homeowners are adorning their gardens with pieces of their collections as a way to incorporate their personalities into their outdoor oases. Take a look at how five members of the East Row Garden Club transformed one man’s junk into their garden treasures.

Colorful collection

The antiques in Kathy and Chet Nalepa’s Newport garden are alive. Not just figuratively, but literally alive with roots. When Kathy moved from Anderson Township to Newport three years ago, she had to bring her plants with her.

“I transplanted irises from our house in Anderson Township that were my grandmother’s,” Kathy explains. “We put a lot of things in the garden we already had.”

Kathy advises people to be patient when transplanting their plants. “This magnolia tree took three years to come around,” Kathy says of the tree that was moved away from the neighboring house to provide more space for its roots. “They come around on their own time.”

Kathy and Chet didn’t work on their garden much the first year in their home because they were building a garage behind the house. “The front was in pretty good shape,” Kathy says. “But the back was a blank canvas. There was one tree and a few boxwoods.”

The front garden is Victorian, so Kathy wanted to create an English-country garden along the side and back of her home. Charming herbs of lemon thyme, oregano and lavender are individually potted and serve as centerpieces on the two dining tables in Kathy and Chet’s al fresco café.

The couple loves their English country garden. “Chet was just excited to throw out his lawn mower,” Kathy says.

Brick by brick

At first glance, the backyard garden of John and Rebecca Gilliam seems like that of a typical garden club member. It is well maintained, colorful and inviting. But upon further investigation, something stands out, or up rather, behind the beds of beautiful flowers. The brick walls protecting the Gilliam’s garden are a roadmap of America. From Ohio to The Alamo, the garden walls are built of antique bricks. Not only are they the highlight of the space, they are also a representation of the couple’s personalities.

Rebecca was inspired to collect antique bricks on a visit to a friend’s home in Athens, Ohio. “She built her chimney out of old bricks, and I came home and told my husband how interesting it was,” Rebecca explains. “John did some research and found the International Brick Collectors Association. There’s a whole community of people out there who enjoy this hobby.”

John and Rebecca quickly got involved and began attending brick swap meets. “Everybody backs their cars in a big circle. When the whistle goes off, everyone just starts swapping. There’s no money exchanged, just bricks,” Rebecca says.

After five years of collecting, which also included canoeing the Ohio River and rummaging demolition sites in Cincinnati, John and Rebecca had enough bricks to construct a garden wall around the back yard of their Newport home. The end result is a unique and interesting display of their collection. “These are all at least 100-year-old bricks,” Rebecca explains. “When they were made, the companies stamped a manufacturer’s name or seal on them, so no brick is plain.”

For those interested in designing with antique bricks, Rebecca recommends mixing a variety of styles—from street pavers to regular building bricks. An antique brick collection could be used for garden walls, walkways, patios, mailboxes or planters.

Two of Rebecca’s favorite bricks are from Russia. “We found several on a trip overseas, but it was challenging getting them home because our bags were already close to the weight limit,” she says.

Although the Gilliams have finished their backyard walls, they continue to collect and swap bricks. “We’re saving these bricks from taking up space in a landfill somewhere. It’s reuse of a material, so I’m sure we’ll find other projects down the road where we can incorporate them,” Rebecca says. “Maybe we’ll do a patio next.”

For more information on the International Brick Collectors Association, visit

Out of the ashes

Mike and Susan Whitehead’s back yard might be small, but they’ve worked diligently to pack it with personality. From the weathered mirror and planters displayed on the side of their garden shed, to the bubbling fountain resting in a bed of hosta, the Whitehead garden is full of charm and whimsy. Some of the most popular items actually came to the couple as discards.

Susan was amused when her neighbor brought her an old gas fireplace insert he’d pulled out of his mother’s house across the street during renovation. “He said, ‘Here, have this. I know you like old stuff,’” Susan remembers with a laugh. “My husband and I do enjoy collecting old stuff and antiques, but I didn’t know what to do with the fireplace grid. It ended up sitting outside my house for a long time.”

Susan found another gas fireplace insert during her own renovation. Now that she had a set, Susan decided to do something with the beautiful, old items to save them from being thrown away.

“One of the gas fireplace inserts had a piece of asbestos in the bottom that I broke out,” she explains. “When I did, I realized there was enough room to plant something. The ironwork is so beautiful, and it just pops against the green of the asparagus ferns I planted.”

Almost any item has the potential to be a planter as long as it’s deep and sturdy enough to support the plants inside. The most important part of planters is proper drainage. If an item doesn’t have holes in the bottom, a drill can be used to create drainage holes—no larger than a coin. Gravel or rocks can be used in the bottom of the container to provide additional drainage.

“I will definitely continue to use the fireplace inserts as planters every year now that I know how well they’ve done and what a conversation piece they’ve become,” she says.

Divine design

When Mary Lou and Richard Waits moved into their Newport home seven years ago, a lot of their stuff went into storage. They’d downsized from eleven acres to a lot with only two patches of soil—one along the front porch and one in the far back of the house.

Mary Lou had to improvise when planning her garden, because the concrete between her house and her neighbor had run from brick to brick. “There was no place to have dirt, so we had to have a container garden,” Mary Lou explains.

The end result is a quaint, terrace garden shaded by the height of the houses, trees and a vibrant, yellow umbrella over a unique eating area.

An antique table and church pew are sheltered under the umbrella and provide Richard and Mary Lou with a perfect outdoor dining room right off their kitchen.

Richard found the church pew at an auction before one of the Catholic churches in St. Bernard was renovated.

“I used it by the fireplace in our old house, because our living room was so big,” Mary Lou explains. “When we moved, we put the pew in our son’s barn for storage.

“Dick (Richard) was planning to build a sitting area outside our kitchen door, but I thought the pew would be nice,” she says.

Richard used marine spar varnish to seal the pew after giving it a thorough cleaning. “When it rains, we just wipe it off,” he says.

“It fits perfectly, it’s comfortable, and it’s something you don’t expect,” Mary Lou says.

Barrel of flowers

Hanging from the trees like Christmas ornaments in Rachel Comte’s back yard are two luscious, unique, handmade hanging baskets.

“I had no idea they would be such a big hit,” Rachel says of the hanging planters she constructed from whiskey barrel rings. “A lot of people on the Garden Walk told me I should start selling them.”

She inherited a gardener’s garden when she bought her Newport home. The previous owner left thirty rose bushes planted in whiskey barrels in the garden. Rachel donated the roses to the Cincinnati Rose Society and began breaking the whiskey barrels down to recycle when she had an idea to keep the metal rings.

“I guess I had seen something similar somewhere, so I called my dad who’s an ironworker to see if he thought we could construct a hanging planter,” Rachel explains. “I attached the two whiskey barrel rings the way I wanted and my dad ran a rod down the center to hold the weight of the plants.”

Rachel purchased coco shell liners, made of the substance inside a coconut shell, to line her baskets. “I lined the inside of my coco shells with newspaper to help keep the moisture in the plants,” she recommends. “Then I ran floral wire around the liner a few times to keep everything in place.”

Rachel finished the baskets off with begonias and creeping Jenny.

A landscape architect herself, Rachel didn’t want her own garden to be formally planned out. “It’s kind of trial and error,” she says. “If something works, great. If not, it’s not a huge deal. Everything in my back yard is recycled. I didn’t plan it that way. It just happened.”

Photos for this feature are from the 2010 East Row Garden Walk. Dates for the 2011 Walk are June 25 and 26. For information, visit


Add your comment: