Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History • Living Treasure from the Past
Read More: For Warm Climates
Eudora Welty on Gardening, Creativity, and Where the Wonder Is
That’s not just any woman weeding her garden in this 1940s photograph – that’s the iconic Southern writer Eudora Welty.
Welty was a lifelong gardener, and in a conversation shortly before her death in 2001, she talked about gardening, her work as a writer, and finding wonder:
“I think that people have lost the working garden. We used to get down on our hands and knees. The absolute contact between hand and the earth, the intimacy of it, that is the instinct of a gardener. People like to classify, categorize, and that takes away from creativity. I think the artist – in every sense of the word – learns from what’s individual; that’s where the wonder expresses itself.”
Warm Winter Woes: Iris “Lightbulbs” and Scanty Bloom
Warmer than usual winters can cause all sorts of problems for plants, including bearded iris. In a recent post at the American Iris Society blog, World of Irises, Bonnie Nichols of zone-8a Dallas explains:
“In December [last year] when the Christmas Day temperature was 82 degrees ... we knew the iris bloom season was in jeopardy. And, it didn’t get better when on January 31 the high was 79 degrees.
“When I saw various bearded irises blooming in December and January, I asked friends if they thought it was rebloom or what would have been our spring bloom. We all had no idea. In April, we knew [it] was the ‘spring’ bloom because we ... had no additional bloom. Maybe 20% of tall bearded irises bloomed....
“We saw more than normal increases on some of the plants because they did not use their energy to bloom. On other plants we noticed something that we had not had much experience with – ‘lightbulb’ rhizomes. Lightbulbs are rhizomes with no increases and the roots wither away.... The rhizome increases in size and twists slightly as if it is pushed out of the ground. [If it blooms] the stalk comes up in the middle of the fan and dies back quickly. The rhizome eventually dries up and dies also....”
Commenting on Bonnie’s post, Phil Williams offered an alternative explanation: “Strong root growth is what produces good bloom here. Makes me wonder if the prolonged heat [in summer and fall] might have created a false dormancy ... and the plants did not root deeply.”
Either way, warmer temperatures are the culprit. Is that global warming? Bonnie says she’s not sure but “I’m beginning to believe it is.”
Winston-Salem to Host Conference on Restoring Southern Gardens
“Gardening in a Golden Age” is the theme of this year’s Conference on Restoring Southern Landscapes and Gardens scheduled for September 21-23 at garden-rich and always fascinating Old Salem.
Focusing on the early 20th century, the conference kicks off with the hand-colored “magic lantern” slides of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston in “Picturing the American Garden, 1900-1930.” Other lectures and tours will explore Ellen Biddle Shipman’s work in Winston-Salem, African-American landscape architect David Williston, garden writing and art in the early 1900s, and more.
If you’re not sure how to spell tuberose, you’re in good company. Misspellings – or alternative spellings? – have been common for hundreds of years.
In 1664, for example, the great John Evelyn in his Kalendarium Hortense spelled it tuber-rose – which makes a certain sense because it grows from a tuber (actually a rhizome, but whatever) and smells as wonderful as a rose.
Many of the misspellings entered into our website’s search-box are mundane ones such as tube rose, tuberosas, tuberrosa, tuperose, toberose, and tuberus.
Others are more entertaining, though, such as tubarose (with really big flowers?), tiberose (a Roman form?), tubrose (best in containers?), tuberoe (less expensive than tubecaviar?), and my favorite, turborose, which perfectly expresses the flower’s high-powered fragrance.
Paradise Lost: Winston-Salem’s Municipal Iris Garden
Does your city have a municipal iris garden? Does any city?
That’s why I was so surprised when this postcard arrived in the mail recently.
It’s a modern reproduction of a 1949 postcard showing the “Municipal Iris Gardens, Winston-Salem, NC.” On the back it reads: “The Municipal Iris Garden contains 20,000 plants, of 525 varieties. The blossoms range from pure white to deep purple, gold, and dark red, and are at their best during May. Weeping willows and rustic bridges add to the beauty of the rolling parkway.”
20,000 plants – of 525 varieties! I had to know more, so I contacted the folks who sent the card – which announces the 2017 Conference on Restoring Southern Landscapes and Gardens– and here’s what I learned.
“The development of the gardens to their present state of beauty is a typical Cinderella story,” the Twin City Sentinel reported in 1938, “with many local iris growers acting as fairy godmothers.”
It all started in the early 1920s when a new neighborhood was laid out which included a four-acre “gully-way” that was left untouched “since there seemed no other purpose it could serve.”
Although today we’d probably consider it a valuable natural area, times were different then and in 1931 a doctor who lived nearby urged the city to beautify it with iris donated from his own extensive gardens. Iris were enormously popular at that time, and before long other neighbors joined the campaign and the Municipal Iris Garden was born.
The city parks department cleared the land, planted weeping willow trees, built stone and rustic-work bridges over the stream, and laid out gracefully curving beds. By 1938 the Twin City Sentinel reported that “Winston-Salem’s iris attract visitors from all parts of the state. From an unattractive gully the city parks department has transformed Runnymede Parkway into one of the most popular parks in the city.”
But that was then. By the early 1950s the iris had been replaced with lower-maintenance azaleas, and today even those are gone. The stone bridges still stand, though, bearing silent witness to the park’s glory days – and who knows what the next chapter might be for this Cinderella gully-way?
Revamped SGHS Website Offers Historic Plant and Garden Riches
You don’t have to be a Southerner to appreciate the Southern Garden History Society, and a recent makeover has made its website better than ever.
The site is now filled with photos and antique images, and it’s user-friendly on all devices. Back issues of its excellent journal Magnolia are now searchable, and there’s an events calendar, dozens of book reviews, and links to historic sites and organizations.
Maybe best of all is the “Plant Lists” section, a fully searchable PDF of 50 Southern plant lists spanning two centuries, from a 1734 list of plants in the correspondence of John Custis of Williamsburg to a 1922-41 list of plants Beatrix Farrand specified for Dumbarton Oaks (including winter aconite, trillium, and lemon lily).
One of my favorite lists is a 1786 newspaper advertisement for Philadelphia’s “Peter Crouwells and Co., Gardeners and Florists” announcing that “they have for sale here” – in Alexandria, Virginia – “an extensive variety of the most rare bulbous flowers, roots and seed,” including 600 hyacinths, 400 tulips, 40 double narcissus, and 26 jonquils. “Those ladies and gentlemen who want any of the above articles,” the ad continues, “will please to apply immediately at his lodgings at Mr. John Gretter’s, King Street, as he intends to set off for Baltimore in a few days.”
Sad News: Garden Designer Ryan Gainey Dies in Fire
The garden world lost a shining star and Old House Gardens lost a loyal friend July 29 when acclaimed garden designer Ryan Gainey died in a fire at his home in Georgia while trying to rescue his three beloved Jack Russell terriers.
Ryan had been ordering from us since 2005, and every now and then he’d call with a question, tip, or just to chat about some interesting old bulb he’d found or whatnot. He was a big fan of gladiolus and couldn’t care less that they were long out of fashion. As an artist he had his own highly personal and creative vision, and – happily for us – glads were a part of it, along with Roman hyacinths and many other heirlooms. (For a glimpse of Ryan’s garden style, see the 1993 book The Well-Placed Weed.)
At his website, Ryan is described as “internationally-known, madly passionate, stimulating, thought-provoking, exuberant, creative, romantic, whimsical, and embracing” – but just as importantly, I’d say, he was curious, generous and gentle. And I wasn’t at all surprised that he died trying to save his pups, Jelly Bean, Leo, and Baby Ruth.
Although the West Coast drought has eased a bit, we thought you’d be interested in this success story from our good customer Pat of zone-9bWC San Jose. We can’t guarantee it will work for you, but . . . .
“I grew some of your ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias last year and found them great for our arid climate. I planted them very deep, maybe a foot down, which is low enough for our clay soil to remain moist with almost no watering, if you can believe it. Maybe once a week.
“I followed the directions at your website and put the tubers at the bottom of the hole and then filled in soil little by little as the leaves emerged, which they did very quickly.
“My tiny garden on the west side of our garage gets a good five to six hours of blazing, direct sun and then light shade later in the afternoon. Since we’re in a valley and not near the ocean, nights are generally cool and dry. [OHG: This is exactly what dahlias love!] The plants wilted on the hottest days but they perked up afterward, as you’d see with tomatoes or potatoes.
“Thank you for letting me ramble on. No one in my family is interested. My neighbors like all the free flowers, though! I give quite a few away.”
Congratulations to our friends at Southern Living who are celebrating the iconic magazine’s 50th anniversary this month! February’s special double issue includes 21 of the magazine’s vintage front covers, 50 years of Southern recipes such as hummingbird cake (1978), and even a blooper section of “not-so-golden moments that we just couldn’t keep to ourselves.”
Gardening has always been an important part of Southern Living, and this issue is no exception. In “The Seed Saver” you’ll meet our friend Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. “The Camellia Man” spotlights Tom Johnson, curator of the nation’s largest collection of historic camellias. And then there’s Southern Living’s long-time garden editor Steve Bender– who’s also a long-time supporter of Old House Gardens – with “50 Golden Rules of Gardening.”
Steve calls himself the Grumpy Gardener, and though his rules may be the funniest garden tips you’ve ever read, they’re full of sage advice. Don’t miss his introduction, too, where he says that gardening is like cooking, and the best way to learn it – and to discover how much fun it is – is by doing it. When people tell him “Gardening is too hard. There is so much to learn. I just know if I plant something, I’ll kill it,” he replies, “Of course you will! Everyone who has ever gardened since Adam and Eve has killed a plant. That’s how we figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
And gardening, Steve says, is “the most gratifying of all human endeavors” – even “better than an accordion concert” or “fine aged possum.”
Lost . . . and Found? Gaye’s “Tiny Little Cream-Colored Daffodils”
We love it when our customers use the “Special Requests and Feedback” section of our online order form. That’s where Gaye Ingram of Ruston, Louisiana, made this plea:
“If possible, I would like to order ten moschatus, even though the limit is five. I’ve missed it every year by ordering late. Saw it decades ago and fell in love with it. I’m well past retirement age and would like to see a wee colony in my lifetime. Thank you for considering my request.”
Being soft-hearted souls, we said yes, and when she replied, Gaye told us this story:
“Thank you! I’ve pursued that particular bulb (or what I believe is that bulb) since 1968. Not even 25 years old but with degrees almost in hand, my husband and I arrived in Ruston that year to teach literature (me) and history at Louisiana Tech. We found a sweet little 1930s house that had belonged to the mother of the chair of the Interior Design department. We felt like grown-ups!
“In spring, tiny little cream-colored daffodils with nodding heads sprang up on the lawn. I’d grown up in Central Louisiana among people whose yards and gardens were filled with passalong plants and bulbs, but I’d never seen such a demure spring bulb. I marked them and vowed to dig one or two in the fall.
“Then we moved to another place, and built a new house. I searched ever after for those quiet creamy bulbs. Went back to the place where we’d lived, but the owners had seen no bulbs. Without care and probably having their leaves mowed in late spring, they’d given up the ghost.
“The next time I saw them was in Celia’s grandmother’s garden. [Ed. note: Our good friend Celia Jones owns a small farm near Shreveport where her grandmother once grew acres of daffodils.] Celia had only a few, and knew only a local name for them. Sometime later, when I discovered Old House Gardens, I talked with Scott, but back then you didn’t offer them and he couldn’t be sure about their exact identity. More recently, whenever you did offer moschatus I ordered too late. (One has to discipline herself to order bulbs when it is 95 degrees with 80% humidity, as it is here today!)”
We sent Gaye’s bulbs to her last week, but we’re still not sure whether our Dutch-grown moschatus – or the very similar ‘Colleen Bawn’ – is exactly the same as the once widely-grown heirloom she’s seeking. Daffodils are enormously varied, and the differences don’t always show up in photos. For example, the Dutch-grown N. jonquilla of mainstream catalogs looks very much like the heirloom N. jonquilla ‘Early Louisiana’ that we offer, but the Dutch jonquils bloom weeks later and never thrive as well in Southern heat. (Learn more.)
But we’re hopeful that Gaye now has the sweet little daffodil she fell in love with almost 50 years ago – and if you happen to be growing the beloved Southern heirloom known as goose-neck, swan’s neck, or silver bells, we’d love to hear from you!
Learning from California: Gardening with 28% Less Water
Congratulations to our friends in California who, faced with what’s been called the drought of a lifetime, have cut their water use by 28% in the first three months of state-mandated reductions.
In September, my wife and I saw the drought first-hand while visiting our son and daughter-in-law in San Francisco. Plants drooped, dead leaves littered the sidewalks, and lawns in the city’s parks sported signs proclaiming “Brown is the New Green.”
It’s no wonder our orders from California are down 25% this fall! But bulbs, ironically, are built for drought. Many have evolved in areas where summers are so dry that to survive they have to hide out underground. Tulips, hyacinths, alliums, Byzantine glads, freesia, and oxblood lilies, among others, actually do better with dry summers – although they need some water in fall through winter to develop roots and more in spring to grow leaves and bloom.
In August the Pacific Horticulture Society newsletter offered some excellent tips for xeric gardening, by editor (and OHG customer) Lorene Edwards Forkner:
“Recently I read some great, if somewhat blithe, advice from garden writer Amy Stewart on tending a low/no water garden:
This is a landmark book, not only because of its content but simply because it’s been published. Twenty years ago I don’t think anyone would have even considered publishing an entire book devoted to the history of daffodils in America. And yet here it is, and that in itself is a testament to the progress that’s been made in convincing people that old plants can be just as garden-worthy as new ones, and that preserving them is as important as preserving historic buildings and other relics of our cultural history.
Our friend Sara Van Beck, the book’s author, has been an advocate for historic daffodils for many years. Her late father John Van Beck, was the founder of the Florida Daffodil Society and joined with me in the late 1980s to persuade the American Daffodil Society to establish a special section for Historic Daffodils in every ADS show across the country. In Daffodils in American Gardens, Sara shares the wealth of information – and images – that she’s collected over the years not only from old books and nursery catalogs but from letters, diaries, periodicals, and from exploring the daffodils that survive at historic places and abandoned sites throughout the Southeast. And what a wealth it is!
Although this may not be the easiest book to read (think dissertation rather than pop fiction) and Sara and I may sometimes disagree in our interpretation of the historical record, Daffodils in American Gardens is a major work of garden-history scholarship, and I’m thrilled that it’s been published. Congratulations, Sara, and thank you!
“I am hoping that ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’ is the dahlia that my papaw and mamaw grew for many years,” Roger Flatford wrote us when he ordered last spring. I hoped so, too, but I knew that was a very long shot. Tens of thousands of dahlias have been introduced, many look a lot alike, and very few have been preserved. But in late summer we got a happy surprise:
“I can’t say thank you enough for ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’ dahlia!” Roger Flatford wrote. “This dahlia grew at my mamaw and papaw’s house in [zone-7a] Heiskell, Tennessee, coming back for them for 30 or 40 years, even through some hard winters. I’m 52 and I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. Every summer it would reward us with the most beautiful lavender blooms. We never knew its name but we always loved to see it bloom.
“My papaw kept a beautiful yard, and I inherited the flower gene from him. After he died in 1980 I tried to keep his flowers growing for my mamaw. Over the years, though, most all were lost except for the lavender dahlia and two old peonies and a little iris that just kept multiplying. Then one year the dahlia didn’t come back. I was really sad to see it gone.
“A few years later my mamaw passed away at 93. That summer I spent a lot of time at the little white house on the hill, remembering how much fun we had visiting there when I was a kid. Then I started looking everywhere I could think of, hoping to find the lavender dahlia. I bought several that looked right, but when they bloomed they were never the one.
“This past spring I saw two dahlias at your website that I thought maybe, just maybe were it, so I purchased them both. A couple of weeks ago I went out to the garden and there it was, Papaw’s Lavender Dahlia. What a reward! I know Mamaw and Papaw are smiling down from heaven.
“Next spring, I’m going to plant another one at the little white house on the hill in memory of my mamaw and papaw, Goldie and Roma Graham. Thank you, Old House Gardens, for finding and preserving the beautiful ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’.”
You’re welcome, Roger! Interestingly enough, that unusually hardy dahlia came to us from Joyce Dowell who got it from her grandmother in Scottsville, Kentucky – which, as the crow flies, is just 100 miles away from where your grandparents lived.
New and Free: Georgia Daffodil Society’s Historics Handbook
Our good customer Sara Van Beck of Atlanta has been a tireless explorer and advocate of heirloom daffodils for many years. Although her much-anticipated new book Daffodils in American Gardens: 1733-1940 won’t be released until February, you can get a preview of some of what it’s sure to include in her recent online publication Historics Handbook: A Short Field Guide to the Most Common Old Daffodils in the Deep and Coastal Southeast. The 66-page booklet can be downloaded for free from the website of the Georgia Daffodil Society. There’s no direct link to it, but just go to georgiadaffodilsociety.com, click on the Historics Handbook link at the very top of the page, and then click on the link under the GDS address.
No matter where you live, if you’re a fan of historic daffodils you’ll find this handbook a valuable resource. Most of the daffodils in it are hardy well into zone 5, and it starts off with universally helpful sections on Characteristics of Historic Daffodils, Saving and Moving Daffodils, Rules for Rescuing, and Taking Photos for Identification. More than 50 historic varieties are pictured and described, along with many unknowns, and Sara’s descriptions are often rich in details that will help differentiate a variety from other similar daffodils. Some photos may be confusing to gardeners further north because the colors of many varieties bleach to paler yellow or even pure white in the stronger sunlight of the South, but other than that they’re generally excellent.
Although the handbook is free to view or download, the Georgia Daffodil Society is welcoming donations in support of it, and we hope you’ll be inspired to send them a check.
How Do Your Dahlias Grow in the HOT South and Southwest?
In the highlands of Mexico where dahlias originated, the nights are always cool, and most varieties today still need those cool night temperatures to grow and bloom well.
Some are more heat-tolerant, though, and we recommend these through zone 8 in the South and Southwest – as noted in our dahlia chart.
To expand our list of heat-tolerant dahlias, we’d like to hear from you if you garden in zone 8 or warmer in the South or Southwest. Which of our dahlias have thrived for you, and which haven’t?
Here’s one recent success story from zone-8b Mobile. Our good customer Glenda Snodgrass emailed us last November to say her mother-in-law, Barbara Adair, bought a ‘Thomas Edison’ dahlia with a gift certificate Glenda had given her. “I told her dahlias couldn’t be grown in Mobile, but she said her mother always had dahlias here, and I’ve had to eat some crow because it bloomed last week and it’s beautiful!”
Barbara grew her dahlia in a large clay pot on her deck. (Pots can be tough for dahlias, but see our Bulbs in Pots page for tips.) “North side, full sun in morning, some shade during the day, until late afternoon full sun,” she explained. By mid-October the plant was six feet tall and the first flower opened. “It’s a darker purple than in your catalog,” Barbara wrote, “a real beauty!”
Elizabeth Lawrence & Friends on the Old White Trumpet Daffodils
Elizabeth Lawrence, the revered Southern garden writer, had a great interest in heirloom plants, searching for them in rural “market bulletins” and researching them in old books. In this 1971 newspaper column (later collected in Through the Garden Gate), she weaves together her own observations with those of fellow daffodil-lovers from almost a century before:
“Many years ago Carl Krippendorf lent me William Baylor Hartland’s Original Little Book of Daffodils (1887), the first catalog ever to be devoted entirely to daffodils. Hartland, an Irish nurseryman, said white trumpets were a specialty at Temple Hill, his place near Cork, and he listed nine varieties. One of these was ‘Colleen Bawn’. ‘No daffodil is more pure white,’ he said, ‘or so easily recognized by its broad twisted propeller-like perianth segments, and long cylinder-like trumpet.’ It is described in A. M. Kirby’s Daffodils (1907) as ‘a gem among white daffodils, silvery-white, drooping, nodding flowers; gracefully twisted petals. Best when grown in shade and grass.’
“’Colleen Bawn’ is still with us, though extremely rare. . . . It is very like the other small trumpets of its day, the silvery swan’s neck daffodil, Narcissus cernuus (now called N. moschatus), and the silver bells of old gardens, but the very narrow, very long trumpet distinguishes it from the others. The trumpet is distinctly yellow though very pale, at first, and the segments are fawn color. The second day it lifts its bowed head to a horizontal position, and both trumpet and perianth become silver white. It has a delicate fragrance.
“In One Man’s Garden, Miles Hadfield quotes from a letter that [daffodil breeder] George Herbert Engleheart wrote about these old trumpets: ‘Away back in the 188os and 1890s I was collecting old forms of white daffodil, chiefly from Ireland. Miss Curry — some years dead — used to hunt them up from old Irish gardens, and a small club of three or four of us used to share them. They were all white things of the ‘Colleen Bawn’ type, but varying in size and form. They didn’t take kindly to cultivation, and are mostly, I think, lost. I made some attempt to discover their history, and came to the conclusion that Irish religious houses must have had some connection with Spain and Portugal — the focus of the white species.’
“. . . From these beginnings Engleheart developed ‘Beersheba’ (1923), still to me the most beautiful of all white trumpets, and very early, usually blooming the first week in March. Engleheart described it as a ‘miracle of stately loveliness,’ and was vexed when [daffodil breeder] P. D. Williams criticized the trumpet as 1/4 inch too long.”
Another great old white trumpet is ‘Broughshane’, although it’s sturdy and handsome rather than graceful. See all the white trumpets we offer — and if you’re thinking of ordering ‘Colleen Bawn’, we encourage you to do it NOW because savvy gardeners have already snapped up over half of our very small supply for this fall.
In her weekly column in South Carolina’s Greenville News, Marian St. Clair offers good advice for shade gardeners everywhere — and recommends several of our bulbs that she’s planting this fall.
“Spring-flowering bulbs grow and bloom from energy stored within the bulb the previous year,” Marian explains.
“For repeat bloom, gardeners must maintain nutrient-rich and moist soil conditions to nurture the bulb until foliage dies back and the bulb becomes dormant.” It’s also critically important, she adds, that bulb foliage receive “the maximum amount of sunlight. For success, shade gardeners should select bulbs that flower early, so foliage has time to restore energy to the bulb before trees produce a new crop of leaves.”
For her zone-8, South Carolina garden, Marian writes that she’s “especially excited about a pair of early-blooming daffodils from Old House Gardens. . . . ‘Early Pearl’, a tazetta . . . rediscovered in an old garden in our region’s ‘Spanish moss belt,’ [and] Campernelle; a tried-and-true heirloom grown for more than 400 years. . . . This fragrant yellow daffodil looks like a wildflower compared with many of the new, chunkier hybrids . . . and its slightly twisting petals remind me of a child’s pinwheel.”
A “large panel with magnificent red dahlias amidst a jumble of grass and creepers” — that’s how a reviewer in 1877 described Renoir’s five-foot-tall The Garden in the rue Cortot which hangs today in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
According to Renoir Landscapes: 1865-1883, “This exuberant depiction of an overgrown garden is linked to the creation” of one of his most famous paintings. “In spring 1876 he was seeking a studio in Montmartre which would put him in proximity to the outdoor cafe where he planned to paint his large, multi-figure composition, The Ball at the Moulin de la Galette. . . . There he would store the canvas overnight, enlisting the aid of friends to carry it the short distance to the Moulin to begin work each day. His friend Georges Riviere described how he and Renoir . . . found such a studio . . . [and] were delighted to discover that it came with a large, secluded garden, ‘which resembled a beautiful abandoned park . . . . We were amazed.’” Renoir completed several important paintings in the garden and applied what he learned there “as he painted his friends at the Moulin enjoying themselves under the acacia trees on a sunny afternoon. . . . Secluded and tranquil but within hailing distance of central Paris, the garden in the rue Cortot was . . . an oasis for Renoir and, in its lush splendor, a spur to his creativity at a vital moment of artistic development.”
Dahlias also figure prominently in Renoir’s Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil of 1873, and art historian Clare Willsdon has “wondered if Monet perhaps might not have given Renoir some of his own dahlia tubers to plant in the rue Cortot garden.” Since dahlias were one of the most popular flowers of the era, Renoir could have gotten his tubers anywhere, but as gardeners we’re happy to believe that Monet — an avid, life-long gardener — passed them along to his friend.
“Half My World”: Restoring the Garden of a Harlem Renaissance Poet
One of the most interesting historic gardens I’ve ever visited is that of Anne Spencer, a little-known African-American poet who lived in Lynchburg, Virginia. Starting in 1905, Anne and her husband Edward transformed their narrow backyard into a highly personal garden with an aqua-blue pergola, a small pool filled by a cast-iron African head spouting water (a gift from W.E.B. DuBois), and beds overflowing with roses, iris, larkspur, poppies, and other flowers.
After Anne’s death in 1975, the garden that she’d called “half my world” was all but lost – but, remarkably, it wasn’t, and the story of its unlikely rescue is told in a fascinating new book, Lessons Learned from a Poet’s Garden by Jane Baber White.
“Lessons Learned” are the key words, because as Jane told me in a recent email, the book isn’t just “the 28-year story of a garden restoration by a group of garden club ladies. The names could be changed and it could be anywhere. Indeed, that is sort of the point. I hope the book will be helpful to anyone, anywhere, who might be planning a garden restoration. These are the steps we took that might be helpful to them.”
It’s not a dry how-to manual, though. It’s a richly illustrated book laid out something like a scrapbook with all sorts of bits and pieces clipped together and overlapping one another – old family photos taken in the garden, notes Anne scribbled on seed catalogs, receipts, newspaper clippings, snapshots of the restoration, and evocative photos of the restored garden today.
Although I could argue with some of the things Jane and the garden club ladies did – I don’t think any restoration, for example, should start with a bulldozer – the bottom-line is that this compelling garden was in dire need and they saved it. For that, all I can say is bravo, and thanks!
To buy a copy of Lessons Learned, visit the newly-upgraded website of the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum which is full of excellent photos and information. And since proceeds from the book will help fund the ongoing care of the garden, and the “lessons” it offers are so valuable, please consider asking your local library, garden club, or historical society to buy a copy, too.
Here’s a book to put at the top of your gift list – for you and anyone who loves gardening, history, American literature, independent women, or the South.
Eudora Welty is one of the most revered American writers of the 20th century, and her home in Jackson, Mississippi is now a historical museum visited by pilgrims from all over the world. But when Welty first gave the property to the state in the 1980s, the garden which she had helped her mother plant and tend since the 1920s, and which offered her comfort and literary inspiration for decades, had all but disappeared from neglect.
One Writer’s Garden is the story of the rediscovery and restoration of that garden, guided by author Susan Haltom and based mostly on family photographs, old letters, and Welty’s memory. What makes the book truly outstanding, though, is the way Haltom and co-author Jane Roy Brown integrate the story of the Welty garden into the broader social history of gardening and America – street-car suburbs, garden clubs, civic beautification, Progressivism, the conservation movement, and so on – and illuminate the many connections between Welty’s gardening and her writing.
It’s also an especially attractive book, with big, full-color shots of the restored garden interspersed with a wide array of old photographs and historic images from books, magazines, and seed catalogs. We’re proud that many of our historic bulbs grow today in the Welty garden (Susan even thanks us in her acknowledgements), but even if they didn’t I’d be telling you this is a book you don’t want to miss!
Our friends Bill Welch and Greg Grant have been growing and championing heirloom plants for decades. Their 1995 The Southern Heirloom Garden became an instant classic, and although this new book is based on that landmark publication, it’s different enough to warrant the new title. Chapters on the garden influences of various ethnic groups – Native Americans, Africans, Germans, etc. – have been completely rewritten, and many new chapters have been added, including ones on naturalizing bulbs, traditional ways to multiply plants, heirloom fruits, and “Natives, Invasives, Cemeteries, and Rustling.”
It’s a hefty book at 537 pages, and nearly 350 of those are devoted to an encyclopedia of heirloom plants for the South. Some entries are pretty much identical to what originally appeared in The Southern Heirloom Garden, but others – such as the five pages on lilies – are completely new. Following the final entry (Zizyphus jujuba, with a recipe for jujube butter) comes one of the book’s best parts, “How Our Gardens Grew,” in which Bill and Greg tell the very personal stories of their own gardens. Don’t miss it.
The book is list-priced at $29.95, but Amazon is offering it for just $19.77 – less than I paid last weekend for two flats of annuals that will be dead by Thanksgiving. No matter how you do the math, this extraordinary book belongs on your bookshelf.
Wesley Greene, Williamsburg’s lead-interpreter for heirloom plants, wrote us a while ago in praise of one of our most popular heirlooms, tuberoses:
“What is amazing to me is how well known the tuberose is in the 18th century, and how little known in the 21st. It is mentioned frequently in the correspondence between John Custis of Williamsburg and Peter Collinson of London.
“A 1736 letter from Collinson reads: ‘It gives Mee great pleasure that the Tuberoses proved a new Acquisition to your Garden. I [am surprised] you had them not, when they are on both sides of you in south Carolina & Pensilvania. My friend [colonial botanist John Bartram] from Last place writt Mee he had last yeare 149 flowers on one single Flower Stalk which is very Extriordinary, but I have heard the Like from Carolina where they Stand in the Ground and Increase amazeingly.’”
Wesley went on to say, “I did not realize at first how much more fragrant they were in the evening, because I am home by then. One of our visitors from Mexico told me, so one night when I had to stay late I walked back to the garden about 7:30 and the fragrance was nearly over-powering!”
To enjoy that lush fragrance yourself, order a few to plant this spring.