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Hockessin Community News
  • 50 Years of Flowers: Kennedy's death a coincidental time stamp in Milltown rose gardener's life

  • After half a century, Leon de Brabander knows the exact day he began growing roses in his backyard.

    “It was the day after Kennedy was killed,” de Brabander laments.

    It's an unfortunate time stamp that's stuck with de Brabander and his wife Loretta. The couple says they were devastated to learn of the president's death, but that the planting of the garden the next day was purely coincidental.
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  • After half a century, Leon de Brabander knows the exact day he began growing roses in his backyard.
    "It was the day after Kennedy was killed," de Brabander laments.
    It's an unfortunate time stamp that's stuck with de Brabander and his wife Loretta. The couple says they were devastated to learn of the president's death, but that the planting of the garden the next day was purely coincidental.
    "I had mail-ordered the roses and they came in during the week and I put them in the garage with the plan to plant them that weekend," he said. "Kennedy was killed on that Friday."
    In the spring of 1964, the first dozen bushes bloomed behind the couple's Limestone Acres home. That was only the beginning.
    Today, more than 100 rose bushes of all varieties line the perimeter of de Brabanders' backyard. At one point, he estimates there were 130 bushes in the garden.
    In the summer, the yard lights up with a kaleidoscope of colors: reds, pinks, purples, oranges, yellows and whites. Among those roses is the John F. Kennedy Rose, a large, magnificent white rose named for the slain 35th president of the United States.
    "It's a hybrid rose," de Brabander said. "Roses have patented names. You can pay $10,000 and name them for whoever you want."
    De Brabander, 78, estimates he spends a minimum of 40 hours a week tending to the rose garden, which is something of a local attraction to neighbors and their visitors. During blooming season, which begins in March, he spends about two hours early in the morning spraying the bushes and then much of the day pruning them.
    One year, he and his wife booked an Alaska cruise for June. That meant the garden work was left to his daughters Ann and Lisa and son Leon Jr.
    "We were out all week with a big group of our friends trying to keep up with all the bushes," Ann recalled. "It took a bunch of us to get it done. That's when I realized just how much work he put into it."
    But de Brabander said it was a labor of love.
    "Usually I wake up at daybreak to get out there and there's this serenity, this peacefulness," he said. "I know God is involved the longer I go. God created the garden and then he created man to tend to the garden."
    The garden has likely brought peace and serenity to more people than de Brabander even realizes. Ann said she has memories of her father always bringing roses to shut-ins, new neighbors, local churches or friends or colleagues who were sick or celebrating a milestone.
    Loretta, an avid gardener herself, said she used to use roses from the yard to make corsages and boutineers for her children and their homecoming and prom dates.
    Page 2 of 2 - De Brabander said he has no plans to further expand his backyard garden, but said he has no intention of giving it up anytime soon either.
    "Growing roses is like playing golf, you have to be a fanatic," he said.
    "Watching a rose open up before your eyes is breathtaking. I don't think there's anybody I know who has seen the beauty I've seen in those roses."

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