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Bellevue at 150: Diane Witte is City's Gardener Extraordinaire

The City of Bellevue turns 150 years old in 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its sesquicentennial celebrations have been postponed for a year. In the meantime, local writer and attorney James Dady is writing some pieces about the city and they will be published at The River City News. This is one in a series.

October and warm weather has waned: time for Diane Witte and her corps of Bellevue street gardeners to pack up the town’s floral glory for another year.

As she has led the beautification effort over four decades, Ms. Witte has attained the status of a civic icon: Bellevue’s indispensable woman. With her tall, trim frame and abundant white mane, her pouring water into a pot is an enduring sight through a long summer in the Vue.

She and her volunteer corps are uprooting, drying out, and storing perennials from some 60 urns, gardens, hanging baskets, and hayracks from around the town.

Successive city administrations have noted Ms. Witte’s contributions to civic beauty. Former Mayor Ed Riehl declared May 10, 2017 Diane Witte Day. His successor, Charlie Cleves, dedicated a park in her honor at Ward and Center streets on August 7 of this year.

Her love for the outdoors and for the beauty of the natural world was kindled as a girl living in her parents’ house on Taylor Avenue just above Covert Run Creek. She and a girlfriend, Janie Wagner, explored the watershed to their hearts’ delight. In a child’s cosmology, they fancied that a panther that had escaped confinement at the Cincinnati Zoo had made it to their patch of woods, and they went looking for it.

Ms. Witte’s fascination with growing things as a girl has eventually led to her niche as Bellevue’s unofficial civic gardener.

An experienced gardener knows just how much labor is involved in planting, placing, and maintaining some 60 planters. Ms. Witte and her volunteers bring out from storage perennials preserved from the prior year.

Supplements to the stock are purchased at Fort Thomas Florist with the help of stipends from the city of Bellevue, the Bellevue Neighborhood Association, and private donors. The flowers are sorted, planted, and fertilized, and set out in the spring, when the intensive work of cultivation begins.

There has been clamor over the years for urns to be placed in particular locations. Ms. Witte listens, but authority about where they go remains vested in one person.

Ms. Witte and a corps of gardeners began the project in the early 1980s with baskets suspended from utility poles along Fairfield Avenue, known to locals as simply “the Avenue.” This corps watered the floral sprays while standing on their cars. Among the pioneers were the late Tom Wiethorn, later the mayor; Kathy Maher; Rosalie Rothfuss, who educated Ms. Witte about perennials; Ms. Rothfuss’s daughter Betsy West, now deceased, and Esther Reis.

Another pioneer was Joan Wallace. She also would bring her push mower in the early days to a hilly patch over-run with weeds. Ms. Wallace mowed the patch every day until it
became what it is today – low grass and wildflowers. The first meeting of the pioneers was at the home of Gayle Tailer, who participated before moving out of town.

The effort was supported then by donations from the Bellevue Civic Garden Club, from merchants along the Avenue, and from private donations.

After nearly forty years of trial and error, a savvy has evolved about what thrives in the heat, humidity, wind, and auto-industrial pollution of an Ohio Valley summer. Some of the preferred varieties are described here. Cannas are ruffled, spiked flowers with veined paddle-shaped leaves that grow tall on their stems.

Plumbago, also known as the leadwort, are sprawling shrub-like plants that resemble vines, prized for their profusion of blue phlox-like flowers.

Gomphrena are another long-stem strain, seen in Bellevue spilling out of their urns and with spiky pink balls at their tips, or fireworks in their long-stem variety, which is what’s preferred in Bellevue.

The supertunia® a Proven Winner product, is a bred petunia which grows in a mounded habit from cuttings, not seed. The plant grows from six to nine inches, spreads up to three feet in diameter, and doesn’t need a large root-ball.

Zinnias, which Ms. Witte pronounces like the plural of the name of the Ohio city on Route 35 southeast of Dayton, are annuals of the sunflower family. They produce seeds that can be used in succeeding years. The plant produces daisy-like flowers on a single stem.

The whopper begonia grows to large clusters of big blooms that last all summer.

The lantana, which starts out yellow, turns orange or red, and then lavender, sometimes showing its colors all at once. Ms. Witte prizes them because it cascades over the sides of containers and blooms until hard frost.

The kimberly queen, also known as the sword fern, sports straight, narrow fronds. They are a dense evergreen in a shapely form that contrasts in shape and color with the gaudier blossoms in the urns.

Ms. Witte’s blooming Bellevue initiative requires large quantities of volunteers and large volumes of water. The preferred urn-watering regimen is two gallons every day, enhanced by fertilizer once a week. The watererers can miss a day here and there, but if there are too many misses, the plants show it.

She is chronically short of volunteers.

Among the faithful are Jim and Beverly McPhail who attend to installations along the Avenue, Kathy Barrett, who waters urns on the upper east side and spearheads the town’s Christmas displays, and Susan Loux, a schoolmate of Ms. Witte’s, who waters the baskets on the Foote and Washington Avenue bridges and the street corners along Washington Avenue. Also, contributing are Cindy Janszen-Kerley, who waters along Poplar and Taylor, Jill Fessler, who helps in the 700 block along the Avenue, and Judy Brauer, who sees to the planters at Bellevue Beach Park. Debbie Sharpe waters the urns along Donnermeyer Drive, at the Party Source, and at Gravette’s Garage on the Avenue. Peggy Cronin helps to tend the gardens and waters on Prospect Street, which runs parallel to the Avenue and just south of it. About her Ms. Witte notes emphatically, “She weeds!” Jeff Davidson waters the urn at Division and Berry; the urns in the Taylor’s Daughters Historic District uptown around Taylor and Center is the jurisdiction of Tim Wilhelm.

Through the course of a couple of conversations on her porch on O’Fallon Avenue, Ms. Witte credits the contributions of her grandson Collin Witte, who helps with various gardening projects in the city, in addition to tending plants professionally for a private company. “He has an amazing eye,” Ms. Witte says.

Among other volunteers are Ed and Sara Habel, Bobby and Marty Mayer, Liz Joseph and her family, Chris Corapi, Kevin and Anna Wright, Councilman Ryan Salzman, Louise Boesler, Joe Cox, Jody Robinson, and Kathy Almoslechner.

There are gardens to attend to at Nagel Park, Swope Park, at the pocket parks along the rail line bisecting the town, the Bellevue gateways from Fort Thomas and Newport along Memorial Parkway, displays in front of the city building, and the park just south of the rail line on O’Fallon Avenue. A business burned down at Poplar and Foote, and Ms. Witte and friends recycled the dead zone into a lovely butterfly garden.

For all of the volunteers’ dedication, the effort always needs more of them. Fidelity to task is a prized commodity. Some come forward, then enlist pinch-hitters when they go on vacation. The substitutes sometimes prove not up to the task, which is two gallons per day per every urn, preferably in the morning. When the casual volunteer falls short, the stalwarts must step in to save the blooms.

Ms. Witte celebrates Bellevue beautification efforts not part of the organized floral displays. Dr. Judy Harrer, the wife of city administrator Frank Warnock, has cleared the hillside below their house at the apex of Grandview Avenue of its invasive honeysuckle. The weed inhibits the seeding of deciduous trees which if left unchecked can ruin a plot as a songbird habitat. Ms. Witte posts photos to social media of striking gardening effects in private yards. She walks the town relentlessly.

For all the time, she spends taking a spade to soil or wielding a nozzle or a water jug, Ms. Witte sees the town with a knowing eye.

She moved with her family to Fort Thomas at the age of nine and graduated from Highlands High School, but prefers Bellevue because she values the urban experience.

Bellevue’s strengths, she says, are its diversity of incomes, its walkability, its historic districts, its smallness, the safety of its streets – “I can walk anywhere and feel safe.”

The town is sociable and family-friendly. Older residents mix well with younger, Ms. Witte says.

She noticed a perceptible decline in the 1980s, when single-family homes were being divided into apartments by a cadre of landlords indifferent to the degrading of the building stock and the undermining of the social and economic value of home ownership. Some apartments were in basements.

An emerging interest in the preservation of the Bellevue’s Victorian treasures helped to stop the decline and put the town on a path of restoration, rehabilitation, civic improvement, and a new era of community pride. Historic preservation is the town’s foremost tool for economic development, she believes.

Ms. Witte credits long-time city councilman Steve Guidugli for organizing a group of reform-minded landlords. Mr. Guidugli promoted better standards of property management, encouraged home ownership, and engaged the city to provide financial incentives to discourage the conversion of single-family homes into apartments.

From her house on O’Fallon, Ms. Witte sees the edge of Dayton across the street. She sees promise in Bellevue’s neighbor, an emerging renaissance in a small city with a distinctive history led by its young progressive mayor Ben Baker.

Diane Witte was married for 45 years to Jim Witte, who died in 2012. Mr. Witte had worked at Western & Southern for 32 years, where he was a division manager for the Florida and Louisiana territories. Mr. Witte was also active in the work of the United Way. He and Diane owned and operated Fountain News in downtown Cincinnati, and they also owned the Bellevue Bistro on the Avenue.

Mr. Witte served with the 101st Airborne in Viet Nam and won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He also brought home a case of post-traumatic stress disorder which was a factor in his passing.

Jim and Diane’s son, Scott, is a member of Bellevue city council, and their other son, Lee, lives in the Mauget family homestead on Henry Avenue in Fort Thomas. Ms. Witte dotes on seven grandchildren.

As the growing season winds down and flower urns are packed away, Ms. Witte revives her artwork in acrylics, which she studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Some of her work has been displayed at Kroger stores.

She espouses a resolutely Democratic line, and fusses with those of the other faith on Facebook.

Every summer Diane Witte helps to plant every urn, hayrack, and basket in Bellevue, knows where they’re installed, and knows who’s looking after them, day by day, in the mile square of Bellevue. It is a labor of love and care that has earned permanent recognition. There is a plaque affixed to a stone in a pocket park at Center and Ward named in her honor. Some of the inscription on the stone says:

"Diane Witte has dedicated most of her adult life to the beautification of Bellevue … The people of Bellevue express their deep appreciation by honoring Diane Witte by naming this park in her honor."

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