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Memory and love worn by a pair of empty little elf shoes

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In the meditation garden at Myrtle Hill Cemetery, at the bottom right side of the dedication sign, there is a small depiction of an empty pair of elf shoes. At first, they may seem like they have no connection to this tranquil place of reflection, but for landscape artist John Paul Schulz, the little shoes could not be in a better home.

More about that part of the story later.

Schulz has been designing gardens and landscapes for the last 40 years. He is currently working on a book about pruning, which is due out next year and is an expansion of an article he wrote for his gardening blog at www.johntheplantman.com. Landscaping and gardening is a vocation he stumbled on quite by accident.

Schulz was an English teacher, and he had started a career education program for his students where they explored different professions. It was during this time that Schulz developed an interest in photography.

“A man wanted me to do photography in his greenhouse,” he said. “And I said, ‘What is a greenhouse?’ And then he took me into a greenhouse and I never wanted to leave. It was just an entirely new world for me…There’s something about taking close-up pictures of plants.”

Schulz, who was living in Columbus, made the decision to quit his teaching job and go work in a greenhouse instead. He started learning everything he could about plants.

About a year later, in 1975, Schulz and his family moved to Rome, where he started a greenhouse.

His young son, Paul, found an interest in his dad’s love for plants and flowers.

The boy had a favorite poem, “The Little Elf,” by John Kendrick Bangs. “I met a little elf man once, down where the lilies blow. I asked him why he was so small and why he didn’t grow. He slightly frowned and with his eye he looked me through and through. ‘I’m quite as big for me,’ he said, ‘as you are big for you.’”

“One day Paul said, ‘We need a place for the elf man to live,’” Schulz said. “I said, ‘Let’s build him a garden.’”

They took a saucer and put little hills in it. They put in a little tree and added a river bed. Moss made the perfect grass for the tiny garden. Schulz and his son also took the wheels off a Matchbox car and made a little tire swing for the little elf man to enjoy.

“And little kids would look at it and they would take their hands and [use their fingers to] walk up the path to the swing. We called it the Elf Man Garden,” Schulz said. “That was my first landscape project.”

The father and son ended up making lots of elf gardens and would travel to Atlanta to sell them.

Schulz’s greenhouse business did not find the success for which he had hoped, but Schulz’s talent in landscaping and design took over where the greenhouse left off. Now in his 70s, his artistry and creativity are still in high demand.

An acquaintance once told Schulz that he was like a symphony conductor when he was directing the work on a garden.

“It’s just fun,” he said. “Even being outside in the hot son and getting sweaty and getting tired … that’s a lot of fun, too. Some people say I never grew up, and that’s OK with me.”

When working with a client, the first thing Schulz does is try to find out what the client’s vision is — what they want in their landscape plan.

“Usually they have a picture in their mind [of what they want],” he said. “It’s sort of a negative. It hasn’t been developed yet.”

Some of these pictures are clearer than others. Schulz takes the clients’ concepts and starts a scaled drawing on paper.

“So we can count plants,” Schulz said. “We can say we need this and that and we can visualize.”

One project that brings Schulz a great deal of pride is the meditation garden at Myrtle Hill. Lisa Smith at the Rome Visitors Center contacted Schulz about two years ago to ask him to design and build the project on what was the last flat place on the Myrtle Hill property that wasn’t already occupied.

“It’s not the largest or smallest project I’ve done, but it’s probably the one I feel closest to,” he said. “I asked her, ‘What do you want?’ She didn’t know. She just knew that she wanted a garden.”

For years, Schulz had wanted to work on a project that incorporated the seven hills and three rivers of Rome. The meditation garden, which is located on the back side of Myrtle Hill, seemed like the ideal place to bring that idea to life.

While the garden was being constructed, his son Paul, 48 at the time, went to see his father’s work.

“He said, ‘Damn, dad, you’re making a great big elf garden.” Schulz said, with a brief pause. “Right after that, he died.”

“That garden became my refuge while I got used to that idea,” he said,

Schulz’s other son, J.R., designed the sign for the garden. And in memory of his brother, he included that small pair of elf shoes that are empty.

“That garden has performed magnificently,” Schulz said. “I’ve never seen a garden grow like that.”

He returns often to tend to the special garden at Myrtle Hill.

“I keep going up there and doing things,” Schulz said. “A garden is never finished.”