When the Howarths moved two blocks to a new home in Pikesville last year, they looked out the kitchen window and knew they didn't want to see that view much longer.
Their backyard looked like the heart of the woods. Weeds ran riot and wild grape vines thick as your wrist choked the trees. The shed roof sagged.
Dan Howarth and his sons helped raise the roof on the shed and slash the bracken from the yard with machetes. Debbie brought home plants rescued from nurseries and construction sites, and their six children helped plant them.
The transformation was nothing short of magical. So it was only natural that Dan, an artist and teacher, stenciled a sign for the garden during woodworking class and nailed it to the shed: "The James and Lily Potter Memorial Garden."
The Howarths are all Harry Potter fans, from Jonathan and Shoshana, ages 12 and 10, who read the books on their own, to David and Sarah, who at ages 7 and 4 prefer to listen to Dan read them aloud.
In the best-selling series by J.K. Rowling, James and Lily Potter, Harry's parents, perished in a magical accident at the hands of the evil wizard Voldemort.
The Howarths decided to honor the deceased wizards with a garden of plants based on the books. You don't need to take a Hogwarts class in herbology to spot the botanical connections in Rowling's books, from a fig tree (Mrs. Fig) to Whomping Willows to snapdragons. There's the obvious - a potted lily - to the less obvious, such as the white hibiscus with a bloom bigger than a pie plate, which Debbie says honors all things giant in the Potter books, especially Hagrid. Even plants with Latin and alternate names are game, such as the Gerbera daisy, which is also known as "Gerbera jamesonii."
As Hagrid rescued Harry from his dreadful Muggle relatives, so Debbie rescues plants. She approaches local garden centers and asks for plants that are marked down or even free because they've passed their bloom or haven't been watered. She nurses them back to health with water and fertilizer, trimming and exposing them to sunlight.
Plants aren't the only wizardly wonders of the garden. A black urn with a golden dragon houses a few of the Weasely pack: two lookalike goldfish named Fred and George, and a big fat one for Percy the Head Boy. On posts and in trees are a half-dozen handmade birdhouses, two of which have families of wrens.
But the garden also attracts less welcome visitors, namely, rabbits. That's why the Howarths place a plastic great horned owl in different perches in the garden each week. It scares the bunnies with its yellow glass eyes. Maybe one day it will learn to deliver mail.
Dan stresses that the Potter garden is a fun garden. Meaning it's OK that the sunflowers aren't perfectly in a row and that some plants don't fit the theme. For example, the butterfly bush, whose Latin name includes "davidii," honors their son David. The sunflower seeds taste good, and the gladioluses are just plain pretty.
While Debbie rescues plants, Dan tends them, for the most part; occasionally they switch roles in the herb garden. The kids help. David and Shana, for example, plant seeds where Dan has poked a hole in the soil.
The Howarths would like to add more active elements to the garden, such as a Hogwarts Express train. Dan is now designing a Quidditch field of three poles with rings on top. They'd need flying brooms to play, though, in order to avoid trampling sunflowers on the way to the goal. But alas, this is a Muggle world.
"Maybe motorcycle Quidditch," jokes Dan, an artist specializing in papercutting and enamels who taught at Krieger Schecter Day School in Baltimore last year.
The family enjoys the garden just after sunrise and sunset, when the weather is coolest. Debbie sits on the deck overlooking the garden to drink her morning coffee, and the family gathers there in the evening to watch the primroses open and the fireflies appear.
With a garden named for wizards, have the Howarths seen sparks of magic?
"Just the hard-earned kind," Debbie says, "when you put something in the ground and something comes up. It was a tangle of weeds a year and a half ago, and here it is today blooming beautifully. I think that's magic."
The Potter garden
Now growing in the James and Lily Potter Memorial Garden:
crab apple (Crabbe, Draco Malfoy's friend)
a Privet bush (Privet Drive, where the Dursleys live)
English thyme (the Time Turner used by Hermione)
lavender (Lavender, Hogwarts student)
myrtle (Moaning Myrtle)
Scotch broom (wizards' flying brooms)
snapdragon (such as Hagrid's one-time pet dragon Norbert)