The garden of Dr. James “Pete” Sellars

Story and Photos by Annie Barbas

East of Adel lies the garden of retired optometrist Dr. James “Pete” Sellars. A former Vietnam corpsman and Naval flight officer, James Sellars honors the Vietnam fallen in his private garden along with his family. After returning from military service, and while still a practicing optometrist, Dr. Sellars purchased this home site and adjacent lowland. After learning that his naval base in Maine had been closed and he could not create a memorial there, he determined to create a memorial to the fallen at home. 

A handcrafted sign marks the memorial garden entry.

As we walked through the garden, Dr. Sellars carried his knobby walking stick that he uses to keep critters at bay and also as an improvised method of ridding the grounds of fire ants by poking the nests repeatedly. Must work, as we encountered only one nest in our wanderings. Oddly there were few critters. Even mosquitoes were absent. A visiting peacock however had taken up residence.

Shade tolerant flowers nestle in the memorial garden for Dr. Sellars’ mother.

As one enters the site from the highway, the drive is flanked by two arborvitae (Thuja spp., cvs.) and trees obtained from the U.S. Forest Service. The concrete drive winds toward the home. Deep shadows are formed by both indigenous and planted trees, which canopy the drive. The initial entry to the garden is from the rear of the home via an open grassy area used for family gatherings and now encircled by mature crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) and native plants. It features an outdoor cooking area and the open area still supports grass for grandchildren to play and family to gather. 

A perfect reflection encourages contemplation amid the lush green of forest, mirroring the greens of the jungle where so many perished.

A grass pathway connects the family gathering area to another garden area with plantings in memorial to his mother. The grass path meanders from bloom to bloom, Celosia and roses (Rosa spp.) reaching for the sun, Impatiens, along with an increasing number of shade-tolerant acquisitions, are interspersed with blueberry shrubs (Vaccinium) and other natives. 

The family memorial garden gives way to a boardwalk that zigzags to accommodate existing trees. This boardwalk angles through bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum), oaks (Quercus spp.), and laurels (Laurus spp.) toward excavated reflection ponds. One area near a reflection pond features an outdoor woodshop for adding handmade crafts and signage for the garden, in addition to a nursery area that accommodates items for future planting. 

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: A golden log structure houses memorabilia, artifacts, and remembrances. This rustic boardwalk leads to the Veterans’ memorial. Brilliant blooms reach for sunlight amid autumn foliage. A kneeling soldier marks the entry to the memorial log cabin. Gnarled stumps and “cat faces” dot the trails through the garden.

Finally, the boardwalk leads to the third site that is at the heart of these still, reflective waters and the heart of the man who gardens there. It is the memorial to his fellow sailors lost during the Vietnam War. A hand-carved welcome arches over the weathered grey boardwalk and entry to the Vietnam Veteran memorial garden. An American flag, flanked by two eagle statues, frames a cross and kneeling soldier. Palms, ferns, and foliage, reminiscent of the jungle where so many died, encircle the hand-built log cabin memorial. The memorial cabin with varnished pine floors contains memorials, patriotic symbols, flags, medals, and scores of porcelain angels in soldierly rows as if guarding the memories of those left behind and those who returned. Outside a solitary rocker overlooks a pond reflecting the morning sun, cypress trees, and the steamy forest.

Collected “cat faces” peer from nooks or lean on stumps, meandering trails protect the fauna, gnarled stumps and framed entries provide natural interest to this quiet place. The dark pools mirror the surroundings, encouraging thought and reflection. Reflected also is the thoughtful planning of the quiet man who returned from war and found an outlet for remembrance and peace in this native and creative garden.

Hailing me as I left he presented me with a stout, knobby walking stick – a good reminder of a quiet place.

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