Jules Vassalluzzo's gardens tumble and flow in entertaining harmony, one big bear hug of a landscape, with surprise and delight at every turn.
You'll find tree peonies next to hostas next to clematis next to hellebores next to strawberries, so many colorful plants and trees that something interesting's happening all year long.
"I'm an equal-opportunity plantsman," Vassalluzzo explains with a chuckle. "Whatever's free or cheap."
So he's no snob, though he studied biology and botany in college and is a veteran of the Philadelphia Flower Show. (His beloved wife, Rosemarie, who died in 2001, was a 14-time grand-sweepstakes winner there.)
"I just love gardening," he says. "Who wouldn't?"
He knows the origin and proper botanical name of every plant in his Langhorne gardens, which twice were on a garden tour. But this is a private place, as well. Vassalluzzo says gardening allowed him to share precious, carefree time with his three children, and now his seven grandchildren.
"Oh," he says, "I could tell you stories." And he does, starting with how he fell in love with Rosemarie Pellegrino, a farmer's daughter from Bucks County, back when both were students at Temple, and how she wasn't much interested at first, but then -
They married in 1962. She was a teacher, he was a family doctor, and their simple Colonial house had exactly two trees in the front yard and two trees in the back when they moved there in 1969.
Over time, the Vassalluzzos turned the front, back and side yards into a verdant expression of the life and values they shared: full, busy and bustling with children and grandchildren.
The grands call him "Poppy." Rosemarie was "Pinky."
The oldest five have their own special corners of the garden, with signs that say so. Gianna and Emily and Roman and Nick have fairies and blackberries and little hostas. Abby has a small table and chairs and a sign in the shape of a teapot that says "Abby's Tea Garden." Poppy's working on the gardens for newcomers Gabriella and Jonathan.
"They all like to come here," says their grandfather, who you guess likes to come here, too.
A visitor once pronounced the Vassalluzzos' breezy gardens "quaint," which stung a little, but what did that guy know? Not much, sniffs Vassalluzzo, who putters around these parts every day from sunrise to sunset, sometimes forgetting to eat.
The "quaint" person was probably trying to say that the gardens weren't haute horticulture, which usually requires a more studied look with great masses of plants and architecturally stunning "accents" of statuary and furniture.
No offense, but that just isn't "Dr. V," as his patients still call him. His gardens are by and for "real people," and he's as real as they come. He retired to care for his wife in the last nine months of her life, and he stayed retired after that. But he blooms with company, enjoying the fuss former patients make over him at the supermarket and everywhere else.
Dr. V is a youthful 68. Though he had esophageal cancer in 2004, he's fit and healthy today. He carries pruners in his back pocket and frequently bends over to trim a branch or pluck a "Weedus americanus" from his gardens, which he and Rosemarie built literally from the ground up on their three-quarter acre.
Vassalluzzo has planted well over 100 trees, and he's gotten rid of most of the grass, replacing it with moss. The moss is so soft and green, you want to slip off your shoes and wiggle your toes in it. Which, by the way, Vassalluzzo does from time to time.
Daughter Susan Tentilucci, who lives in Yardley, says her parents' gardens are a wonderful expression of their life and personalities, if "a little overwhelming."
"In my gardens, I have hedges, a little bit of this, a little bit of that," she says, "but my father has a little of everything everywhere. He has so much diversity, it's amazing."
Vassalluzzo describes his gardens as "natural" and "serendipitous," and talking about them often reminds him of Rosemarie.
"I'm mushy," he says.
He misses Rosemarie like crazy. His conversation is filled with references to "Ro" liking this or "Ro" doing that, and he still grows pots of rosemary, one of his wife's "signature herbs," and pansies and lily-of-the-valley, which he used to fashion into bouquets for her. He plans to plant some on her grave.
He tells stories about his son, Christopher, now 43 and a doctor like the old man, and it's clear that when Christopher was young, his dad called him "Honey." No big deal, but somehow it's quite arresting. Even in 2007, it's usually "Buddy" or "Big guy" for boys, right?
Dr. V insists his gardening epiphany came when he was only 31/2 and living with his parents and brother in South Philly. He used to go a neighborhood produce store to get leftover lettuce for his pet rabbit, and one day he saw a basket of pansies for sale that almost made him forget about Bunny.
Vassalluzzo insists he was a goner for gardening, more or less, from that moment on. "Gardening has a big spot in my heart," he says, "and it all started with Bunny."
Vassalluzzo loved family medicine with equal fervor. "Ro used to say, 'Medicine is your mistress,' " he recalls. How he enjoyed the challenge of "treating the skin and everything in it," a line he's probably repeated, happily, 100 times.
That's sort of how he approaches his gardens, too. He never tires of working in them, talking about them, looking at them, or deconstructing them for visitors.
Sometimes, when young folks visit, Vassalluzzo says, they marvel at the lushness and variety, then inevitably, wistfully, remark that they'd never be able to plant such a garden.
"I tell them, I didn't do this in a weekend," he says. "It took a lifetime."
Virginia A. Smith blogs about gardening at http://go.philly.com/ kisstheearth.EndText