How a radio garden show helped beautify - and pacify - a region

For years the yard behind the Wildcat Inn in Jackson, N.H., was simply the place where the dumpster sat - somewhere for the delivery trucks to park. But now that once-sterile area is an extraordinarily attractive outdoor extension to the restaurant itself.

Flat beds, raised beds, hanging baskets, even a catchment area, are filled with flowering annuals, trailing vines, and shrubs. Trees dot the garden, and patrons may dine at umbrella-shaded tables if they wish.

The change (''startling,'' say those who witnessed it) and similar transformations up and down the Mt. Washington Valley region of the White Mountains are the direct result of a local radio station's long-running gardening competition. What the ''Garden Trail'' contest has accomplished bears telling, for it could be repeated in many regions around the country.

What started out as a simple WBNC-sponsored contest back in 1962 has boosted regional pride, helped beautify the entire valley, and even expanded job and business opportunities.

When Skip and Joan Sherman arrived here in the late '50s to found station WBNC, they discovered the Mt. Washington Valley, or the Eastern Slope, as it was then known, to be naturally beautiful but, wherever man had set foot, a little on the tacky side. Litter was a constant presence.

Then there was the worst ''litter'' of all: The valley was not so much a region but a collection of towns, each of which held some pretty strong opinions about the others. Much of the criticism, Mrs. Sherman recalls, ''was downright mean.''

Because WBNC served all the regions, the Shermans felt they should try to do something to correct the problems. They thought a competition to beautify the towns might promote friendly, rather than mean, rivalry. If it could also help sell a little advertising for a struggling radio station, it would be ideal.

So the Garden Trail was born and has accomplished all that it was designed for - and more.

The idea was to promote the planting of colorful flowers around commercial buildings and private homes so that a naturally beautiful region would appear even more attractive to residents and visitors alike. To score well, a garden would have to be free of litter. Points were also awarded for the quality of the sign announcing a restaurant, bank, or other business. Today, with litter and sign quality controlled by town and state ordinances, the Garden Trail is a straight gardening contest.

Over the years both the number of entrants (95 this year) and the quality of the gardens have risen tremendously. The winners of two decades ago wouldn't make it into the ''top 10'' today, says Mrs. Sherman. Individual towns, too, have tacked awards onto the WBNC event, awarding a prize to the local entrant who scores highest in the overall competition.

Rivalry among towns continues, but the contempt has largely dropped away.

What else has the competition accomplished? Nurserymen and greenhouse operators believe they are considerably better off for it. Then there are the Ward twins, Shirley and Virginia, who, with their partner Wink Lees, are in business on their own as a direct result of the Garden Trail. Their ''Multiflora'' company is a gardening service - and such is the talent of this trio that one or another of their clients invariably wins the large commercial division.

Virginia Ward was a waitress at the Snow Village Inn near here who loved to garden. One year, with the competition approaching, proprietor Ginger Blaimyer told her to forget waitressing and concentrate on the garden. Virginia called in sister Shirley, and together they teamed up with Mr. Lees - and Multiflora was born.

When Bill Zeliff moved to Jackson and bought the Christmas Farm Inn, the Mt. Washington Valley suddenly had a new competitor. Mr. Zeliff was the type who would have had good-looking grounds surrounding his inn in any event. But with the WBNC competition providing an additional challenge, it was perhaps inevitable that he would turn a handsome landscape into an outstanding one.

After several years of being beaten out of first place by a mere percentage point, he finally wrested the crown from the frequent winner, Snow Village Inn, last year. But to do so he had to hire the talented Ward twins and Wink Lees. This year Snow Village won back the title and Multiflora had triumphed, no matter how you look at it.

When Martin and Pam Sweeney bought the Wildcat Inn, they felt drawn to enter the Garden Trail competition. With little space out front, Mrs. Sweeney extended her gardening efforts into the largely barren backyard. In just a few years the total transformation had taken place, and with its parklike setting the backyard became a logical place to extend the restaurant. This year his wife handed Mr. Sweeney a bill for $1,000 for the new season's plants she had set out. Says Mr. Sweeney, who swallowed hard when first told of the cost, ''A thousand dollars spent on additional advertising wouldn't bring in anywhere near as much business as this garden does.''

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