— By Julie Savage Parker —
“I say, if your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life.” ~ Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes
Rumor has it that Christopher Mello’s mama first found him curled up in her garden, grasping a poppy in his tiny fist, umbilical cord reaching deep into Mama Earth. His birth certificate says he was born 48 years ago at St Joseph’s Hospital, but we know better. We know that his roots reach deep into the Earth, right here in West Asheville—whether his mama and daddy brought him home from St Joe’s, or, more likely, plucked him from their own garden. His mama was known as a great beauty, his father quite a colorful character. His grandmother was an exotic dancer and his grandfather was in the circus. These are the genes that created this amazingly creative man.
Christopher Mello was born not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but perhaps with a trowel in his hand. As a first or second grader, coleus was the catalyst that sparked his lifelong love of the garden: he was delighted to discover that once they got long and leggy he could lay on them on their side, fasten them to the dirt, and make even more plants.
“Gardens are a form of autobiography.” ~ Sydney Eddison
Though he has wandered the globe from Costa Rica to Kathmandu, since the day Roberta and Harold Mello plucked him from beneath a cabbage leaf in their garden, Christopher Mello has largely remained rooted in West Asheville where he is most at home with the sun on his face and his hands in the dirt. When he was a still a small boy, he made a book titled This is Me and drew himself as a farmer in straw hat, big boots and overalls, planting seeds in a row—complete with a cartoon thought bubble showing the flowers he was dreaming the seeds would become.
Christopher’s checkered past includes time as part of the floral crew at the Biltmore Estate (both in the nursery and in the house). He was also part of the floral crew creating the Christmas sets of Good Morning America and The Today Show—and is even a licensed barber (ask him about a free beard trim!) Christopher himself has flowered into a master gardener and he is now the proud papa of a well-known and well-loved garden in West Asheville on the corner of Westwood Place and Waynesville Avenue known about town simply as ‘Christopher’s Garden’. The entrance from Westwood Place has a sign “YES, YOU MAY” – his response to the many people who come by and want to explore his ‘Garden of Earthly Delights.’
“There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling.” ~ Mirabel Osler
The gardener’s free spirit is evident in the eclectic mix of found objects seamlessly woven into the landscape. A single visit to the garden can’t begin to reveal all the treasures this garden holds, all the smiles it could elicit. Whimsy is surely his middle name.
Christopher loves welcoming people in to wander about and is especially happy when parents bring their small children. The children take delight not only in the plants and flowers and bottle trees, but also in things like the array of Tonka trucks in the gravel circle in the middle of ‘Shovelhenge’—his circle of well-loved and well-aged garden shovels. And kids love the birdcages hanging from the trees, each with either an angel in it—or a shark. Perhaps they recognize that this particular grown-up is really a kid in disguise (and they don’t even know about his extensive Lego collection!) One day a couple of months ago, a little boy was wandering in the garden with his mama when he spied Christopher putting sharks and angels in the birdcages. The little boy let him know he was troubled by the sharks living up there near the angels, but Christopher turned worry to delight when he explained he always thought of sharks as underwater angels.
“In every gardener there is a child who believes in The Seed Fairy.” ~ Robert Brault
“Green fingers are the extension of a verdant heart. “ ~ Russell Page
One day last November, Christopher learned that a friend of a friend was facing moving into her car… and so he opened his home to a perfect stranger who was in a pickle. That stranger was me. When I drove up to his house with my car full of what belongings weren’t in storage, he stood at the door smiling a welcome. We had not even met, but he opened his home to a friend of a friend in need! In the six months I ended up crashing on his couch, I observed a man with a heart full of love—for the earth and sky, for ‘all creatures great and small,’ for his friends, for words and music and just about everything that was in his world. I often saw him transfixed at the back windows by the sunrise (he even woke me one morning to celebrate an especially beautiful sunrise) or by the sunset in the front windows, or by the raucous cries of the ‘murder of crows’ in the field across the street. Christopher Mello feels deeply and appreciates deeply. He delights in saying that we can reinvent ourselves each time we open our mouths. For six months I got to observe his creative process firsthand as he made his hand-built ceramics at a large table set up beside where he’d set up my computer. His wit shows as clearly in his work and his words as in his garden.
Christopher Mello is the subject of Bill Torgerson’s documentary Yes You May: The Story of Christopher’s Garden. He is also one of the leads in a potential documentary-style TV show about the lives of six gay men in Asheville. Initial filming has begun for the show and we are waiting to hear if it will be picked up.
When his hands are not in the earth in the garden, they are in clay, making his signature acorns, or planters adorned with poppy seed pods, or his wildly imaginative hearts. Christopher Mello’s beautiful (and of course, typically playful) hand-built earthenware ceramics are available at the Grovewood Gallery as well as at his studio at ‘Christopher’s Garden’ at 307 Waynesville Avenue in West Asheville. Visit his website (which has been planted and is just beginning to sprout) at christophersgarden.net. Check out Zen Sutherland’s gorgeous photography of the garden on the About Christopher page (and throughout this article) as well as photographs and comments (e.g. “Gardens that Make You Gasp”) of visiting garden bloggers from around the state.
The man’s creativity seems boundless. Some years ago he built a charming waterfall-powered home for himself on Little Pine out in Madison County where he used to hike up the mountain with his favorite goat.
Two years ago this month some 20 local businesses (including Walk restaurant and The Hop) came together to hold a fundraiser for Christopher’s Garden. He puts himself wholeheartedly into this space that he leaves open to the public and pays for it out of his own pocket.
I would love to see the community that loves this magical garden help support it by sending a bit of love in the form of money to Christopher Mello, 307 Waynesville Avenue, Asheville 28806. And right now is a lovely time to visit the garden yourself and meet the gardener. Yes, you may!
“We come from the earth.
We return to the earth.
And in between we garden.”
Photo Montage by unknown artist & Photo of Christopher (next page) by Julie S. Parker. All others by Zen Sutherland.
Julie Savage Parker‘s passion these days is helping reinvent healthcare, particularly moving cancer care from chemo to cauliflower. She runs a meet-up group for people choosing to heal cancer naturally which meets monthly at Om Sanctuary and at the rooftop ballroom of the Battery Park apartments. (See meetup.com/Healing-Cancer-Naturally-Meetup and see her blog at www.julieparker.me)