Tlaxcala Secrets Revealed

Allan Appel PhotoMaria Meneses talks to her flowers and she touches them. As hundreds gathered in her West Rock yard for a celebration, she revealed the real secret to sunflowers taller than an NBA center and hibiscus petals the size of a dessert dish: seeds from Mexico.

Maria and Elier Meneses’ spectacular garden enlivens the top of the well-traveled circle of Blake Street at Springside Avenue just down from the horseshoe courts and in proximity to West Rock.

On Sunday 30 members of the Mexican family were gathered on the back lawn and driveway adjacent to the spacious L-shaped gardens that wrap around the Meneses’ modest house.

The guests had traveled from as far away as Tlaxcala State in Mexico and from San Isidro, California, to celebrate daughter Kelly Meneses’ “quinceañera,” her 15th birthday party, a major event in Mexican culture. More than 200 people had attended the quinceañera’s Saturday event at the Annex Club in the East Shore.

All the tables had centerpieces of flowers—directly from Maria’s yard.

On Sunday afternoon, the sunflowers and hibiscuses were swaying in a pleasant breeze beside a streamlet of the West River that runs adjacent to the garden. The Meneses were gracious enough to break away to tell their gardening secrets to a reporter.

What does Maria, the primary gardener, say to the flowers?

“Oh, nice flowers,” was the answer, translated by Elier. But there was something far more mysterious that came across from her eyes and likely was lost in translation.

In addition to talking to the plants, Maria said she touches them frequently as she walks by them when she returns from a full day (6 a.m. to 3 p.m.) working in a hotel kitchen.

She said she’d like to work a little less and tend flowers more, but first Elier would have to earn a little more money. Then she hugged him.

In high season, Maria said, she gives the sunflowers, multicolored hibiscuses, dahlias and other plants about three hours of watering and care after work every evening.

In addition to the magic of talking and touching, and the not-so-secret labor that gardening entails, Elier said that the seeds from the Meneses’ native Tlaxcala just seemed to flourish in New Haven soil.

The brown-faced sunflowers grow from Tlaxcala seeds. Many were easily over seven feet. Elier said the soil and perhaps the greater availability of H2O might account for their growing more robustly and taller here than on their native ground.

He pointed out that the pale-faced sunflowers were of Peruvian origin, seeds provided by a friend. They were a fairly normal height. The bees preferred the Mexican flowers, because the inflorescence or flowering head of the Peruvian species had no seeds.

Elier said his wife can grow anything. He was particularly proud of the full, floppy-headed dahlias.

Nearby was also a new challenge: Maria was growing her first lemon tree. It had a small red ribbon around the base to keep a stalk upright, and it would, of course, come inside in the winter.

When Elier bought the house six years ago, he said, there was not much growing, and certainly no garden.

“The color is brown,” he said of the house. “It looks dark. The flowers make light.”

So the colorful garden that now catches the eyes of drivers stopped at the very close-by traffic light – including an Independent reader who alerted us to this wonderland – represents four years of loving work.

And not only on the flowers.

Elier, who also did ice-sculpting for his daughter’s party, pointed out the large bushes on the front of the house. “What’s this?” he asked.

A reporter was not sure of the topiary work on the first one. Elier said he had pruned it into the shape of a rabbit.

Nearby was clearly a bushy, green heart, made of, it appeared, juniper.

Maria said she has been watering and tending flowers since she was a baby. It was unclear if the next generation was going to carry on the tradition she had learned at the foot of her 90-year-old mother in Tlaxcala.

Neither Kelly nor her sister Erica is interested in the garden, the parents said. “I like to look [at the flowers],&#8221 said Kelly, a junior at Career High who wants to be a health professional.

Maria’s mother could not get to the party or to see her daughter’s fabulous flowers because she had no visa, said Elier.

Many, many pictures of the event and, of course, the garden, are on the way to Tlaxcala.

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posted by: Marsha on August 3, 2010  10:56am

This is the best garden I have seen in New Haven.  Year after year it gets better and better. I drive by it every day, sometimes going out of my way to see it. Thank you for sharing their story with the rest of us jealous gardeners.

posted by: Fellow Plant Lover on August 3, 2010  11:13am

The flowers are very nice, but do Maria or the reporter know that it’s illegal to bring seeds into the US from other countries without written permission from the USDA?  If they had known that I would have expected it to be mentioned in the article.

US Customs laws on plant matter are in place because, “Prohibited agricultural items can harbor foreign animal and plant pests and diseases that could seriously damage America’s crops, livestock, pets, and the environment – and a large sector of our country’s economy.” Seeds are prohibited without written permission as “ANY plant parts intended for growing (propagative) require a phytosanitary certificate in advance.” (quotes from US Customs site:

posted by: abg on August 3, 2010  1:17pm

Anyone wanting to see fabulous gardens in New Haven should check out the 2010 CT NOFA City Farm & Garden Tour this Saturday ( garden tour.html).

posted by: Mary Faulkner on August 3, 2010  2:23pm

I have marveled at these hibiscus flowers for weeks!  What a wonderful garden.

posted by: HewNaven?? on August 3, 2010  2:30pm

Awesome! I was wondering who was responsible for that garden!!

posted by: Sepblues on August 3, 2010  6:39pm

Lots of great gardens on West Rock Avenue and around Westville in general… Check out Westville Garden Exchange on Facebook for more details.
Thanks for this colorful article and congratulations to our green-thumbed neighbors.

posted by: Gabriel Da Silva on August 3, 2010  11:19pm

Congratulation Maria and Elier for a wonderful garden, vary inspirational article.

posted by: Tom Jackson on August 4, 2010  1:48pm

What a wonderful garden - reminds me of the one Bill Liddell used to have in Hamden where he - and a bunch of volunteers - could grow up to 5,000 pounds of produce a year for New Haven area soup kitchens and the Connecticut Food Bank. More on bill’s story here:

Wonder what would happen if more churches followed Bill’s lead?