Delaware couple’s azalea garden still blooms 60 years later

ODESSA, Del. (AP) — In the early 1950s, Jerry Unruh planted his first azalea bush.

The World War II veteran built his Odessa home in 1951 and wanted to add some color to the property. He discovered azaleas while traveling.

“I had a well-drilling business, and I worked around the country,” he said. “I saw these bushes in different places and I liked them.”

By the time he and his wife, Helen, married in 1976, he had 85 azaleas.

“She fell in love with the few I had and wanted more,” he said.

Now their Corbit Street two-acre yard in Odessa has one of the largest collections of azaleas around — more than 1,700 shrubs. Each spring, it draws visitors from all over the country to view the vibrant blooming flowers.

They usually bloom in the last couple weeks of April and stay at their peak through the first couple weeks of May.

Tending to the garden has been a full-time job for the couple, who have been married for nearly 45 years. The upkeep often required daily watering, weeding and mulching. Some years they even had to shake spring snow from the branches of their plants.

The Unruhs bought their azaleas from all over the country, from as close as the now-closed Ronny’s Garden Market in Smyrna and as far away as Georgia. Jerry has even knocked on doors and offered to buy azaleas from private residents, returning with a backhoe.

Traveling north on Route 13, drivers get a traffic-stopping view of the bright pink, purple and white flowers surrounding the Unruh home, but that only hints at what the Corbit Street property holds.

The Unruhs welcome visitors to roam their property, admire the flowers and take photos. They greet visitors from their kitchen door and talk with everyone like they’re old friends.

Due to the pandemic, last year was one of the few years they didn’t get many people stopping by. But this year visitors have returned.

Admirers throughout the years have described the property as “spectacular” and a “garden of magic.”

People wandering the property on the morning of April 30 took pictures and talked about how beautiful the flowers are every year.

Earlier last week, a family brought their four-week-old baby to the property to use the flowers as a backdrop for photos.

“It floored me,” Helen said.

Jerry and Helen never imagined that their azaleas would become a tourist attraction. And Jerry certainly never thought planting that first bush 60 years ago would lead to planting more than 1,700 azaleas.

Newark resident Lee Blessing, who has been a Delaware resident for 25 years, was visiting the garden last Friday morning for the first time. She had never heard of the Unruh property until her friend told her about it.

She is a frequent visitor to Longwood Gardens to see their flowers, but she was blown away by how large and beautiful the garden.

“I love flowers. It just makes me happy being here,” she said.

And the Unruhs get the same joy from the flowers that their visitors get.

“I live for the spring, so I just love walking around out there and enjoying them,” Helen said.

After nearly 60 years of planting and tending to the 1,700 azaleas, the two have stopped adding to their garden, and they no longer need to feed or water the flowers.

“We decided within the last couple of years, we have had enough,” Helen said. “The bushes can take care of us now, instead of us taking care of them.”