Perhaps one should refer to Melina Dodd as the Picasso of plants, because her horticultural creations are unequivocally works of artistic excellence.

At least that is how residents of Bartlett Woods, a retirement community off upper Talbot Avenue on Bartlett Drive in the city, feel about what Dodd does to spruce up the outdoors where they live.

"She makes it feel like we live in a park," said resident Marian White.

Of course, Dodd is, in fact, an artist in a more traditional sense, and demonstrates that when she creates her beautiful gardens at Bartlett Woods.

Her creativity brings sunshine and color into the lives of the community's residents.

For Dodd, it simply is a means of expression, a way to literally and figuratively get her hands dirty. To bring a smile to those who view and soak in her work.

Dodd essentially gets down on her hands and knees and works the soil to help it come alive. To make it sing, in silent, but vibrant tones.

The native of Bogota, Colombia, who describes herself as a "gardener," has long had a love of working with things that grow in the earth.

Dodd has worked under experienced gardeners in the past and, three years ago, she established her own business.

"I have no formal training in horticulture," she said. "I have always had a passion for gardening and a curious mind for it. Through observation and experience, the garden is, in a sense, the teacher."

How Dodd became an accomplished local gardener is, in many respects, a fascinating story.

While she was born in Central/South America, she has lived most of her life in North America. Her mother had been a foreign exchange student in Connecticut before she met Dodd's father, while he was on tour in Colombia with the United States Peace Corps.

The family moved to St. Albans when Dodd was 4 years old. That is when gardens became an essential part of the family's life, existence, pride and joy.

And it was the humble beginning of Dodd's future passion.

"We lived off the grid for a period of time and the garden was an essential part of my upbringing," she said. "The garden was such a part of the community interaction in our town. When visiting the neighbors you would inevitably be toured through their garden. My mom grew dahlias, peonies, delphinium, hollyhocks. She always had a vegetable and herb garden. I have a vivid memory of harvesting parsley for our dinner salad and chamomile for tea infusions, as well as helping my mom with weeding."

That passion for growing food and creating beauty with plants is as much a part of Dodd's life as waking and sleeping. She takes pride in the plants, gardens and overall environment wherever she works the earth — especially at Bartlett Woods.

"Not only does the garden provide a place of beauty to the residents of Bartlett Woods, but it contributes to the overall environment by attracting and feeding birds, butterflies and other pollinators," Dodd said. "I feel so fortunate to be gardening professionally. For many years I was not gardening, because I did not have the space for it at my in-town location. Now I have a handful of gardens besides Bartlett Woods that I am responsible for."

Dodd said she hopes her gardens encourage residents of Bartlett Woods to get outdoors, when possible, to take in the beauty and, essentially, be one with nature. But, if they cannot get outside, hopefully the residents can look out their windows and get a similar  experience.

"It is so good for the soul to get out and walk and observe nature and its glory," Dodd said. "I love when I arrive to the back patio [at Bartlett Woods] to find the tables are being occupied by residents enjoying the garden and relaxing outside. There are several residents who walk the garden daily and I witness them observing every little change in the garden."

Dodd said while she has received many positive comments, reviews, if you will, from residents on her gardens, it is she who cherishes the opportunity to bring joy to others.

"It is such an honor to serve the residents of Bartlett Woods with the garden," Dodd said. "It is a truly amazing group of people who live and work in the community here. They are all so appreciative of the garden. It’s just so rewarding to provide a service that brings joy to others."

While the ground and dirt now essentially are Dodd's canvas, and the arrangement of the plants another form of her artistic vision, she has a background in more formal art forms. She worked as a picture framer and operated a frame shop and art gallery at one time.

"Gardening and framing are similar in the creative aspect, as well as working with the visual of design, color, texture and form," she said. "Each require an eye for detail and working with your hands."

And just how does Dodd create a mesmerizing garden, one that ultimately captivates, from a blank canvas of grass, dirt and surrounding trees? What are the important elements to successful gardens and environmental beauty?

"My focus is to try to go with nature as much as possible," she said.
"We add a beautiful top dressing of organic compost each year to feed the soil. The Bartlett Woods site can be extremely dry, so I try to use more drought-tolerant plants. Another very important aspect to flower gardening is regularly deadheading the spent blooms to encourage more to come. After deadheading every other day, I have a full bucket of dead heads."

Dodd said gardens may look, to some, stagnant at times, but are constantly evolving, changing and, in many respects, growing.

"The garden is always in a state of flux," she said. "Through observation I try to cater to the needs of the perennials. Some will mature and outgrow their space and need to be relocated or divided. Others are just not happy in their chosen location for one reason or other. I’m also trying to mix up the color scheme every year to show some variety. Next year I plan to include more red flowers in the garden."

Dodd is "amazingly talented," said Christine Parker, Bartlett Woods' marketing director, a sentiment echoed by Mary Eads, the community's executive director.

"Melina’s gardens are pure artistry at its best," said Eads. "The way that she has crafted such variety with colors and textures in her landscape design fills us with great joy. Our first sign of spring is with the return of our treasured gardener and friend, Melina, in hat, ever so gently removing all of the plants' little winter coats. I’ve been told that because the gardens are so close by in proximity to our apartments that one can choose to enjoy from a window, sitting outside, or strolling through. You can’t take it all in with just one glance. One is compelled to look again and again to see what’s new in the garden. Could it be a new bloom, a bird, a bee, or a juicy, ripe berry ready for the passerby to taste and enjoy. I know that our gardens are only going to keep getting better and better with time and those of us who are lucky enough to enjoy just keep saying … ayhhhhh."

Bartlett Woods is expected to create a greenhouse in the future and that, in itself, will go a long way to enhance what Dodd does — and, in the meantime, cut the costs of the retirement community's overall horticultural program.

"Every spring we purchase an abundance of plants which we could, in fact, be growing on our own if we had the space and time to do it," Dodd said. "We are considering introducing a small greenhouse for spring 2017. This will also allow us to plant more annuals from seeds collected the year before."

And, in an important way, it will allow Dodd to do more of what she does best — create beauty and brighten the daily lives of her older audience.