Rocky start: Homeowner builds garden brick-by brick

Jennifer Davis

Never underestimate a girl with a little red wagon, says Johanna "Jodie" Odum.

With hers, Odum has hauled salvaged bricks, scavenged rocks (with permission) from the neighborhood and moved dirt here, there and everywhere. And all it took to transform her sloping Peoria, Ill., front yard into a garden retreat was sweat and time - nearly 30 years. No landscape design degree, no hefty checkbook.

"One thing evolved from another," says Odum, who started her rock garden as a way to solve a water runoff problem. "I think I started really seriously after the kids left and the dog died. I had to do something about the depression."

"Really seriously" gardening is right. Not only did Odum and her husband, Lew, with some help from their adult children, build a 100-foot brick path from the street to their door, but they created two large tiered rock gardens. And Odum herself hand-laid an 18-foot-by-20-foot brick patio.

"It's been worthwhile - and I have muscles," says Odum, a spry 67, who worked evenings and weekends on her back-breaking projects. Now, recently retired, she still works several hours a day in the yard.

Surveying her handiwork, Odum admits: "I didn't know I had it in me."

She landscaped by feel, by look. For instance, after they widened their driveway, they created a berm off to the side with the extra dirt.

"There was never a master plan. When you've got to find a place to put the dirt, you come up with something."

Unfortunately, the first try just didn't feel right. "I told Lew, my beloved, 'You don't have to help me,' but I was determined to change it. We needed to move the front half of the berm to the back. Out came the wheelbarrows."

The redesign also involved digging up and transplanting dozens of plants. She used kiddie pools to keep them wet and reduce the mess.

"(Lew) did help, and we moved it about 2 1/2 feet back. Then it had the right depth perception."

The brick patio also needed tweaking. After laying out a couple hundred bricks in a diagonal design, Odum later decided she wanted the patio to be larger all around. She got out her little red wagon and rounded up some more bricks.

"The digging is always hardest." The bricks were mostly gifts from friends or garage sale finds. "And some people throw them away," she adds.

For all her artful bricklaying, Odum is actually more in love with her rock garden.

"Other women have bowls of flowers; I have bowls of rocks. I've just always loved rocks. I don't know why. I guess it's in my genes. My grandfather in Bavaria used to go on digs."

Odum immigrated to the U.S. from Gerolzhofen, Germany, when she was 11, but she recalls spending Sundays with her grandfather going on long walks. He went on archeological digs and she thinks seeing his prize fossils in the town museum likely inspired her.

Once she had the idea for her rock garden, Odum knew she wasn't going to buy them. "I wanted to hand select them," she says. She worked out an agreement with the previous owner of Springdale Cemetery to get rocks from the creek there.

"We got some from down by the river, other creeks, wherever," says Odum, noting she was always careful to ask permission. "You never know unless you ask."

Once, while walking in her neighborhood, she came upon a beautiful huge rose quartz in the yard of a home for sale. "I asked the woman if she would sell it to me and she said, 'It was a gift to me; it'll be a gift to you.'"

Odum's large granite boulder, now nestled in flowering yellow sedum, was another gift for the asking. Formerly planted at a fast food restaurant, the business told Odum she could have it if she could haul it. "Luckily, we had a neighbor with a winch truck who brought it over."

Friends and family also add to Odum's collection: the quartz from southern Illinois brought back by her grandson; the amethyst from her daughter in Wisconsin; the black rock with white stripes from her uncle's garden in Germany.

"People bring me rocks," she says simply. Or, she finds them, like the whole geode she bought cheap at a garage sale.

Geodes look like lumpy rocks on the outside, but, inside, they hold minerals. The most prized geodes have hollow interiors. While a sharp blow with a hammer is often enough to crack open a geode, exposing its crystalline interior to daylight for the first time, Odum had hers cut professionally with a rock saw.

"If you don't know what you're looking for, it would be easy to miss them. They just look like lumpy rocks," she says.

Other favorites include her petrified wood, which glitters like gold in the sun, and her sleek, black obsidian.

Strangely though, Odum's favorite rock was a doorstop in a department store. And the first time she tried to buy it, she was told it wasn't for sale. Years later, she convinced the owners to part with the large fossil, which now sits proudly in her living room.

Odum's knack for stumbling across finds extends to the art in her garden.

"I was looking at something in a garden catalog and my son said he could make it for me. Indeed, he did," says Odum of her many copper arches, trellises and funky metal accents. A heating and air conditioning guy by trade, Andrew Odum now builds and shows his metal art at area art shows and at Peoria's Riverfront Market when he can.

"It snowballed. I didn't even know I was an artist. It started with my mom saying, 'Make me a garden bug,' I'm not even sure what I was shooting for. I think it was an ant," he says.

But his mother and her friends loved it. "I said, 'If you think that is cool, I can make some other stuff.' I've welded for about 20 years, but I never did anything artistic with it before."

Today, Andrew Odum spends a lot of spare time with his new artistic sideline, making his own works and doing custom jobs.

"If you can think of it and convey it to me, I can make it," he says.

Jennifer Davis can be reached at 686-3249 or