OXFORD, Conn. (AP) — When Richard Kaminski thinks about how his garden looked a few years ago, he looks pained.
By the time Kaminski had gone through an aggressive round of chemotherapy for stage IV metastatic melanoma at the end of 2009, his back garden — a forest of nearly 100 species of trees, flowers and shrubs once meticulously arranged around a goldfish pond and shaded gravel pathway — was in shambles.
Melanoma can be the deadliest and most aggressive form of skin cancer, and it's becoming more common. The American Cancer Society predicts that about 96,480 new cases will be diagnosed this year, and 7,230 people, most of them men, will die.
When the chemotherapy did nothing to shrink the three large tumors on his lungs, Kaminski's doctors told him he might have six months to live.
Meanwhile, Kaminski's front yard — an impressive collection of plants interspersed with decorations and a small goldfish pond — had stayed in decent shape despite the neglect. But the backyard was overgrown.
He was still going to work as the comptroller at the Watertown engineering firm Remote Automation Division every day, but when he got home there was no time or energy for the garden.
"It was just kind of like, rest and recuperate for the next morning," he said.
Kaminski spent most of his free time at home, where he could see how bad the backyard looked.
"It was just full of sumac, barberry, rambling rose," he said while poking around his sprawling backyard garden on a recent July afternoon. "Just everything nasty."
Richard and his wife Sue had started the gardening project as a 25th anniversary gift to each other, with the small goldfish pond in the front.
"It was an embarrassment," he said. "There's no describing how bad it was."
Soon after undergoing chemotherapy in 2009, Kaminski enrolled in a clinical trial at New York University Cancer Institutute for an oral drug called Zelboraf. The drug was developed to address the specific gene mutations that affect about half of all late-stage melanoma patients, including Kaminski.
By mid-December 2010, his tumors had shrunk by 95 %. He has been cancer-free since 2011, and his doctor told him in July he can stop taking the medication that saved him.
Four years ago, when he finally felt well enough to get back into the garden, he backyard was an intimidating sight. Soon after his first efforts to step into the jungle his garden had become, he realized it was a job for a professional.
"My wife kept saying 'you're not going to do it,'" he said. "Prickles were grabbing me, I was tripping over vines."
It took years. Kaminski did much of the work, but had to hire someone to hack away at the fast-spreading plants that had taken over the yard. With Sue at his side, Richard went to garden shows to pick out new plantings, crafted an entire pint-sized village, city and farm for the model train to run through and protected his blueberry bush from birds and the apple trees from deers.
Water hyacinth, water lettuce, water lily and cattails went in and around the goldfish pond. Bee balm, beardtongue and Scotch broom along the path. Lemons and oranges in a small clearing near the front yard.
Anyone driving on Davis Drive could probably pick out the Kaminskis' house. Beside the neatly trimmed lawns of their Oxford neighbors, the front yard features multiple charismatic flora and a large lawn decoration of a train. Walking down their front walk and into the backyard feels like entering a secret oasis: small frogs hop through the grass, trees create a shady cover and a path of crushed stone leads under a light-spotted trellis to the goldfish pond.
Kaminski once let tours with the Garden Conservancy visit his plants — during one trip before his cancer diagnosis, 300 people showed up in one day.
"They wouldn't leave," Susan remembered.
But the backyard had been closed to the public in the years Richard was bringing it back to life.
Then, one day at the end of July, a dozen members of the Oxford Gardening Club shuffled down the path, pointing and 'ahh'-ing at what they saw.
"Boy, those rhododendrons are huge, huh?" said Carol Moeller, pointing as she walked through the back lawn during the 2019 debut. "You can see he does a lot of weeding."
Moeller, who lives in Southbury but is a member of the Oxford Garden Club, sat on a bench underneath the trellis. It was a hot July day, but a good one to sit and admire Kaminski's work.
"Everything is just pristine, which is so nice to see."
Now it's Kaminski's turn to relish in the fruits of his labor. Wearing long sleeves and a big floppy hat to protect his skin, he still does several hours of work a day, keeping the weeds at bay and tinkering with the model railroad.
He recently recreated Oxford's United Congregational Church, complete with a miniature wedding party. He finally felt the whole garden was ready for the public to see — no longer an embarrassment.
His enjoyment of the garden is simple. He and Susan aren't horticultural experts, they choose the plants they like. He tinkers with the trains because they make him happy. He gets joy out of small visual gags along the train tracks, like a pair of six-inch tall port-o-potties with one long line of miniature women and a short line of men.
There's always more weeding to do. But now, he hopes, he and Susan can use the chairs and benches that sit empty facing the garden.
"I think the big projects are done," he said. "I suppose we could be inspired by something in a magazine. But I think I want to sit back and enjoy it."
Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com