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Different Yardstick Rural Town’s Population Is Blooming A Bit - But Nothing Like Its Residents’ Flower Gardens

If there’s one thing people in St. John like, it’s a well-manicured lawn with lots of showy flowers.

Other communities might recognize a “Citizen of the Month” or even a “Business of the Month.”

St. John honors the “Yard of the Month.”

Winning homeowners get a 4-by-8-foot sign posted in their front yard for the month, as well as certificates to hang on the wall.

There’s no shortage of contenders for the monthly yard award in the Eastern Washington farm town.

St. John’s streets appear lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting. The sun-baked farmland surrounding the town gives way to big shade trees, wide lawns and sculpted flower beds.

It’s enough to make a garden store owner’s eyes light up come spring.

“I enjoy my back yard,” said Kathleen Knittel, who tends one of the nicest landscapes in town and is the latest winner.

It may sound quaint, but people in St. John look upon gardening as a matter of community pride.

The women who run the Country Cuzzins Garden Club started handing out the awards a year ago. So far, 10 yards have been recognized. They are chosen by a committee of three club members who go around town judging the best.

The competition is good-natured. Gardeners try to outdo one another with bigger vegetables and healthier shrubs, but they trade starts of their favorite plants.

Winners are modest about their success.

“There are so many beautiful yards here,” said Lorraine White, the first winner in 1994.

Unlike many rural towns, St. John is holding its place as the commercial and social hub for northwestern Whitman County.

“We are one of the very small towns that’s growing instead of dying,” said Knittel.

Population is edging up slowly in St. John; it was 529 at last report.

The vitality may come from the stability of residents. Many trace their roots back generations to early pioneer days.

Knittel’s grandfather homesteaded in the area in a sod house, she said.

Her husband died three years ago after retiring from the county road crew, leaving Knittel with the job of taking care of the yard on her own. She loves it, and it paid off with this month’s award.

At 76, her body won’t let her do much kneeling so she gets around the problem by limiting the number of new plantings each spring. She relies mostly on perennial flowers that come up year after year.

Perennials are favored by older gardeners because they offer a broad range of shapes and colors and they bloom at different points in the season.

As a result, the garden’s appearance changes from week to week.

Knittel is in no hurry. Gardening is a passive pursuit that demands time for contemplation.

“I work 20 minutes and sit down for 30,” she said. “I don’t work when it gets too hot. I go inside.”

Roses grace the sidewalk in front of her brick home.

Her favorite is the French lace variety with its soft scent.

Her collection of perennials blooms in sequence from late winter through the first freeze.

In the fall, the firebush next to the kitchen window turns a blazing red.

“I like to have something blooming all the time,” she said. “I also like to have something I can take to church.”

For now, the patio is graced by a potted orange tree with small edible fruit.

A birdbath sits under a shade tree across the yard, and three plastic deer stand near day lilies.

Across town, Lorraine White tends eight varieties of orchids and other tropicals in a greenhouse built by her husband, Curtis.

The yard outside is well-landscaped, with several cushions of big hostas occupying the shade along the rear fence.

The Whites’ yard won a monthly award last year.

Her family traces its roots to the same Whitman County farm her great-grandfather worked.

White and her husband moved to town a few years ago and left the farm to their children.

Keeping up a yard like this takes 10 to 20 hours a week.

It’s apparent a lot of time goes into the yard of Neil and Kim Nelson, another one of the winners.

The couple has a large lot featuring big spaces of green lawn broken up by flower beds and a vegetable plot. Kim Nelson’s favorite flower is the old-fashioned grape hyacinth, a small blue spike that blooms in early spring.

Nelson, who was born in Korea, has a passion for spicy food.

She grows her own garlic, several kinds of onions, hot peppers and horseradish.

“I can just walk out here and pick whatever I need,” she said.

It’s hard for a visitor to leave without being offered samples of her produce.

That’s the way these country folks are, easy with a smile and quick to wave to passers-by.

As Gail Griggs, the current garden club president, said, “Everyone in this town is so friendly.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Map of St. John area