WOONSOCKET – Lisa Comire's front-yard garden brings almost as much pleasure to her neighbors on the tenement-generous stretch of Rathbun Street as she gets from doting on the patch of showy blooms.
But this season she was more grateful than ever to have a place to escape that she also loves to be in after she got a test for COVID-19. Thankfully, she says, the results came back negative, but she still had to quarantine for 14 days, and the garden was where she spent a lot of it.
“I don't know what I would have done if it were winter,” she says.
Garden shops were swamped by an uptick in demand for seeds and plant starts this year, a spike driven largely by the boredom of COVID-19 lockdowns and concern over the food supply. The trend begat a term – pandemic gardens – a new twist on the Victory Gardens that cropped up, for similar reasons, during World War II.
But Comire would have planted her garden, pandemic or not. She's been doing it for years outside her ground-floor apartment at 334 Rathbun St. And neighbors are glad she does.
Comire gets permission from the landlord to spruce up the lawn. So she squeezes in as many pots as she can with flower starts that she usually picks up around the corner at Bileau's. This year the cultivars sunning themselves just beyond the front porch include some enormous sunflowers, petunias, impatiens – so many Comire can't remember all their names.
They aren't just situated in pots in front of the porch – she's got viny climbers like wisteria and morning glories that are scaling it, all the way to the second floor.
Although the garden consists mainly of flowers, passersby may also also spy a potted tomato and some Hungarian wax peppers in the mix.
“It's the delight of the neighborhood,” says Emily Lisker, a graphic artist from the neighborhood who strolls by regularly with her dog just to take in the sight of Comire's green-thumbery.
Her partner, Bill Calhoun, a physics teacher, can't get over how Comire manages to pack so much floral activity into such a compact spot, but he likes it.
“It beautifies the neighborhood and inspires other people to do it,” he says. “I call them pocket gardens.”
Comire says she gets positive reviews from passersby like Lisker and Calhoun all the time. During the quarantine period of her gardening activities, she had to shoo people away so they wouldn't get too close.
“It makes the crabbiest people smile,” she says. “It seems to make everybody happy.”
In late June, a roommate came home and told her that four of his coworkers in a local mill had come down with COVID-19 and that he would need a test. She thought it would be a good idea if she got one, too, so she walked to the testing tent at nearby Thundermist Health Center, where she got a way-up nose swab that she won't soon forget.
“Yeah, like way up,” she recalls in vivid detail. “It's a massive tickle.”
Four days later she got her results – negative.
It was a relief, says Comire, but she still had to quarantine. So she spent most of the next two weeks in one of two places – alone in her room, or in the garden.
“I was very relieved,” she says. “I babysit my grandchildren.”
Comire's plot is one of two gardens in the neighborhood that scream for attention with splashy color and lush foliage. Just around the corner there's a veritable jungle of potted plants – including a few unusual specimens – in Vane Chomphranouvong's front yard at 339 East School St.
When Comire goes for a walk, Chomphranouvong's house is often where she's headed. And not just to take in the spectacle of the garden, but to see the woman who tends it.
Not surprisingly, Comire says, wrapping an arm around Chomphranouvong, “We're best friends.”
Chomphranouvong used to be a teacher in Laos, the nation she she fled as a war refugee in 1981 to resettle in Woonsocket, where she now lives with her extended family in the five-unit where she tends the plot in the front yard. She's retired from her job of 28 years with a Massachusetts car parts maker and gardening gives her something to do.
Like Comire, Chomphranouvong packs a ton of wow into a small space with her mostly potted array of flowers and vegetables. One way she does it is by growing vertically on trellises made of bamboo and hand-made netting.
Passersby may feel as if they were suddenly transported to the hothouse at Roger Williams Park when they stumble across Chomphranouvong's herbaceous hodgepodge of cultivars. It includes several varieties of tomatoes – grape, cherry and saladette, among them – fiery hot peppers shaped like tiny candlesticks, fragrant Chinese celery and a slew of colorful flowers like dahlias, hibiscus and gladiolus that pop like living fireworks.
But some of her choices might have observers scratching their heads looking for a name. For example, there's a lotus flower, a native of Asia where the giant buds are actually a food. Water is the normal habitat of the lotus and Chomphranouvong has hers growing in a sunken pool of it.
“That's three years,” she says. “No flower yet.”
Chomphranouvong also grows at least two varieties of Asian long beans – aggressive climbers that produce pods that can easily measure up to two feet long.
But those aren't the only unexpected denizens of Chomphranouvong's plot – she's got a whole section devoted to cactus and succulents. She's even been known to grow pineapples from cuttings of the fruits that she buys at the supermarket, but this year it was too cold during the spring.
Not all of the visual interest in Chomphranouvong's garden comes from the flowers. There is a statue of a T-Rex dinosaur, about the size of a small dog, poking its head out from behind the lotus leaves, and looking oddly fitting in the location.
Chomphranouvong's niece, Alice Hurst, says her aunt started many of her plants from cuttings or seeds that friends have given to her over the years. Some are perennials that come back every year, but she also saves seeds. Some of the tropical varieties come from garden centers that carry them.
The garden, across the street from an industrial building, spruces up the neighborhood and frequently draws compliments from workers, children and others on their travels, says Hurst.
Of course, her aunt doesn't mind at all.
“She's very proud of her work,” she says.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo