Seven years after AIDS Services of Dallas dedicated a garden to Dallas Voice co-founder Don Ritz, the Rainbow Garden Club undertakes a massive refurbishment to return the space to its proper glory

Y’ALL IS WHACK: AIDS Services of Dallas President and CEO Don Maison, front center, stands among the newly designed Don Ritz Garden. The renovation was led by the Rainbow Garden Club’s Todd Smith, far right. Members of the RGC and ASD are also pictured.

AIDS Services of Dallas is now such a fixture in the North Texas community, it may be difficult to realize that 20 years ago, it was the new kid on the block in Dallas charities, struggling to provide care and shelter to people living with AIDS.

So when Don Ritz took an interest in ASD early on, his contributions always made a big difference, according to Don Maison, president and CEO of ASD.

"From the time I came here, every year we would get a very generous donation from Don, throughout his life," says Maison, who has been with the organization almost since the beginning. "Don always donated without solicitation."

When Ritz, who co-founded the Dallas Voice, died in February 2001, a portion of his estate went to ASD, Maison says. Although the gift was undirected, Maison and his board met to find a way to honor Ritz’s generosity. They decided to rename the courtyard at the Ewing Avenue residence after Ritz.

The location on Ewing Center in Oak Cliff, which originally opened in 1987 as The Place for Us, was chosen because it was the first facility Ritz helped maintain. "It’s the smallest of the four residences, but the original," Maison says. Currently it houses 23 residents, with a waiting list of around 250 for all the properties.

"The garden really needed to be done. We thought it over and decided to make it a living memorial to Don," says Maison. "Before Don left us the bequest, we had a waterwheel that had been left to us, but it had become so waterlogged it was falling apart."

The garden was renovated in 2002, but in the intervening years, it began to show its age. Weeds had sprung up; pots had not been replanted and lay fallow. It was, everyone agreed, in need of an overhaul.

And that’s where the Rainbow Garden Club stepped in.

The club for gay greenthumbs has, for several years, made a concerted effort to offer the expertise of its members to the community at large. The opportunity to refurbish the Don Ritz Garden for the residents of Ewing Center was tailor-made for its mission.

A LEGACY OF LIFE: Don Ritz, left, died in February 2001 and left a general bequest to ASD. Maison and his board decided to spend part of the funds developing a garden at Ewing Center, which was then named after Ritz. This month, Dallas Voice publisher Robert Moore, right, made a donation to the Rainbow Garden Club to assist in refurbishing the garden.

"This is what we do as gardeners — we have to do it somewhere," says Todd Smith, who spearheaded the project on behalf of the Rainbow Garden Club. "ASD is such a great charity, and they really had a need here. It was just waiting for us."

The RGC began its planning months out. First, Smith prepared a diagram of the garden and an inventory of its current plants. Next, he evaluated issues such as which areas received the most midday sun and which were mostly in shade, determining what would grow best in each corner of the plot.

"One of the things I really tried to do with the garden was to get low-maintenance plants," Smith says. "There were a lot of pots here, and pots are a lot of work. We did pull up things that were inappropriate for a shady location and replanted a few things around that weren’t flourishing where they were but could do great."

The idea, he says, was to make a foolproof garden that could be easily maintained by ASD’s current staff and enjoyed by its residents.

"It was important to me that it be a year-round garden. I saw it in the winter and it was drab, so we came back with evergreens and shrubs," Smith says.

Next came the fundraising and acquisition of plants that could go to ASD. RGC holds an annual plant sale; this spring’s event was dedicated to raising money for the Ritz Garden.

Ritz’s former business partner, current Dallas Voice publisher Robert Moore, promised to match funds from the plant sale, which he more than met in honor of Ritz.

"We spent about $1,000 on plants and even more were donated; members had some to offer as well," Smith says. There was about $750 left over, which the club donated in cash to ASD.

Then came the logistics of the replanting.

Anyone who thinks of gardening as a lazy way to putter around in the dirt on a cool afternoon to avoid real work would be quickly disabused of that watching as Smith turned the members of the RGC into pack mules for an afternoon. On a Saturday a few weeks ago, Smith rallied 14 of the club’s volunteers for six hours ("it felt more like 10," offers RGC member Tom Forsyth) in a campaign to clear out the underbrush and plant new growth. That followed two days of prep and demo work performed by a handful of club members.

"We pulled out a lot of weeds, some 5 to 10 years old," says Smith. "There was one weed so big and old, it had actually been pruned into a bush!"

Everything was complicated by other circumstances. Work was performed on the same day as the DIFFA collection — the day a tremendous rainstorm descended on North Texas. Garden club members worried for a while that all their efforts would be washed away, and they scrambled to get their tools covered. That followed a few other incidents.

EXTREME MAKEOVER, GARDEN EDITION: Until recently, the Don Ritz Garden was overgrown with a border of monkey grass, limp plants and barren soil, top; after the Rainbow Garden Club spent a day working on it, below, the plot of land became tailored with robust plants (and members even painted the pump black to make it fade into the landscape better). ARNOLD WAYNE JONES/Dallas Voice

"We broke pipes at least twice," says Forsyth, laughing. The staff at ASD would fix the leaks while the gardeners continued toiling away. But it all came together.

"The garden had good bones," says Forsyth, noting that it was well structured and ultimately not as difficult to get back into shape as it could have been. By the end of the day, those who worked on the garden were filthy and sweaty… but the garden looked great. And everyone was satisfied.

About a year ago, the RGC re-landscaped the MCC in Oak Cliff and it has engaged in numerous social events, pool parties, home garden tours and other projects. But nothing on this scale.

"It is the biggest project the club has undertaken as a charitable exercise," Smith says.

It’s not just the residents at ASD who are pleased. On a recent visit, a neighbor of the facility walking by the garden called out to thank the members for helping to beautify the street.

It is the nature of a garden that it needs some tending — even low-maintenance plants eventually need to be pruned or replanted; weeds will find their way into the cleanest beds; mulch will turn to compost and a freshening up will be required to revive the beauty. Smith estimates that another major overhaul of the Ritz Garden will be necessary within 10 years.

But until then, the garden will continue to serve its dual purpose: providing an oasis for ASD’s clients and standing as a testament to the generosity and legacy of its benefactor, a living expression of his devotion to an important charity.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 22, 2009.
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