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Meet the flint stones: Rocks crop up naturally on Marion's country garden tour

I had just parked the car and started to stroll through a garden at Marion Lake when I came across the owners, intent on a project, in the shade of a tree.

I tiptoed up behind them, not wanting to scare them, when the woman looked up from her chair.

"I have no idea who you are, but here's a chair," she said to me, completely unruffled. "Come sit down."

They were welcome words, beyond the totally unmerited kindness. It was sunny and 99 degrees, and I'd just viewed a handful of other gardens in town. I sank down in the chair beside Teeny Williams and surveyed her husband, Pete, painting an old wooden-picket chair in whimsical Americana style. It was to be a finishing touch for the Marion garden tour on June 25.

Seven gardens will be on the tour — five in town, this one at the lake, and another on a ranch north of town. The tour will be a month earlier than it was last year, when I called it a vacation. Marion is only about an hour away from Wichita but feels so different, with the Flint Hills, natural springs, colorful antique shops on Main Street and Colorado-like evergreens.

This year feels the same.

(One note, though: Roadwork on Highway 50 means you probably will want to take I-35 to Newton and then K-15, or take the turnpike to El Dorado, then go north on Highway 77.)

The tour is rich in stonescaping, which is a natural given its location in the Flint Hills.

The Williamses bought their three acres on 96 Lakeside Drive 12 years ago, and "you couldn't see past the end of the driveway," Teeny said. The couple cleared out trees and brush and then started to dig outcroppings of rock from the ground.

"I had to start digging them out to plant some grass," says Pete, who amazingly has carpeted the spilling acreage in a gorgeous lawn.

Rocks of all shapes and sizes, straight from the property, line garden beds and pose as sentinels. Three boulders sit exposed right above where they were buried. Two of them act as a natural gateway to the Back 40 and a dip in the property that runs along runoff from the lake. There, a 100-or-so-foot-tall cottonwood towers, with signs reading "Ole Man Cotton" and "Let Freedom Ring" tacked to it.

"If I get mad at the world, I come down here and pout," Teeny said, then quickly added, "Oh, it's not that bad."

Other gardens on the tour also make use of stone. Almost as welcome as Teeny's gracious "sit down" is the garden at Kris and Kevin Burkholder's home at 431 Elm in Marion. Its deep-shade backyard backs up to the woods, with layers of boulders, stones, antiques, ivy and masses of ordinary annuals popping perkily out of big tubs. Part of the yard is a playground.

I was especially taken with the garden at 146 S. Lincoln. Who plants the side of the driveway with pockets of garden, including an elegant fountain surrounded by evergreen trees up against the basketball goal? The sweet but unpretentious front lawn gives way to a pretty backyard that makes use of both sides of fences and gates and the walls of a garage to present layers of garden.

For instance, who is so thoughtful as to put a wreath on the outside of a wrought-iron gate facing the alley? Walk to the alley, where the pedestrian door to the garage is, and you find a lovely vignette of a Black Hills spruce, a little pocket of rock surrounding a yew and an iron planter holding a lime sweet potato vine and purple fountain grass.

And here's the wreath, along with the sound of a fountain and birdsong carrying over from the backyard.

And I always wondered about putting up pretty bird feeders, as opposed to functioning ones. I've always gone with the latter. But here are the pretty ones, looking not the worse for bird wear but, well, pretty.

Don't forget to catch — you can't miss them, actually — the next-door neighbor's container vegetable gardens, red windmill and clothesline poles serving as posts for birdhouses.

Also on the tour is a tamed portion of Shirley Jo and Rocky Hitt's 600-acre ranch north of Marion, affording "Flint Hills vistas, cottonwood groves, fields of sunflowers and native flowers," according to the tour description. The ranch's address is 2052 Timber.

Back at the lake, Pete and Teeny's tornado cellar is the subject of childhood-tornado-nightmare, "Wizard of Oz" fascination. It is dug into a rock- and crown-vetch-covered hill. Their granddaughter has painted sunflowers on the cellar door, and Teeny opened it to reveal the cold shelter under the earth.

The Williamses have never had to use "the cave" for a storm, "but sometimes I get a Pepsi and a chair and come down here where it's cool," Teeny said. They also keep it clean — just in case.

Pete pointed out a fossilized worm in one of his rocks.

"These rocks, they aren't everywhere," Teeny said. "Very few people have seen these rocks."

I'm glad to say I'm one of them.

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