A note from Agnes: Welcome, readers, to the first post in the Inherited Gardens series from Kerry Eilleen. Kerry is one of the HWS members working on The Hardy Women’s Society Annual Meeting project. She will be contributing a monthly gardening post to the HWS. Kerry had the great fortune to live in houses that were once occupied by the HWS founders. In this post, she discusses those inherited gardens. ~Agnes
Inherited gardens are like a palimpsest–they are a trace of what once existed–remnants of neglected plants, tattered fencing, an empty bird bath, stone benches under ancient fruit trees; waiting for a gardener to return. These are the gardens I am most attracted to and feel a need to embrace. Inherited gardens are a gift from the previous gardener.
I am deeply grateful for having come to know three remarkable ladies through the surviving traces of the gardens they left behind. Ada Gentry, Georgia, and Bunny created their gardens during the early part of the 20th century.
Upon purchasing Ada Gentry’s small English-style cottage, built in the late 1890s, I was elated to finally have a garden. On first viewing the overgrown tangle of Clematis paniculata and the half-dead rows of Mock Orange (Philadelphus coronarius), I knew that I would become a gardener for the rest of my life. My heart felt touched by the neglected remnants of a garden that had once been beautiful and tended with care.
Ada Gentry’s small cottage was surrounded by her beloved “Sky Garden.” The “Sky Garden,” as it looked that day, gave only a hint as to the beauty this enclosed sanctuary once offered.
As I set out to become acquainted with the garden, the influences of both William Robinson’s The English Flower Garden and Gertrude Jekyll’s color schemes, became apparent. Along the garden borders, I discovered plants here and there–soon a pattern emerged. Instead of fencing, Ada Gentry created a hedgerow of Mock Orange. Inside the boundary of this green wall, perennial flower beds lined the large rectangular panel of grass in the center.
Ada Gentry had created drifts of color by grouping plants with similar hues together. Although many of the plants had died out, their dehydrated root systems and skeletal remains provided clues to what kind of plant had been grown. Over time I filled in the beds of peonies, daylilies, delphinium, iris, columbine, coral bells, phlox, and hosta with new plants. Ada Gentry’s garden was only the beginning of my gardening endeavors and the benevolent spirit I found in this place has been my inspiration.
Reluctantly leaving this Edenic home, I moved to Oregon. Once again, I found a garden to restore and cherish. I moved into Georgia’s 1923 bungalow. A large Black Walnut tree hovered over the back gardens, as though protecting them from any harm. Whereas the Illinois garden lay on flat land, the Oregon gardens were etched into a hill side and held in place with a system of terraced rock walls.
Georgia loved beauty. There were many Arts and Crafts details throughout her home and gardens. The bungalow, with its glass casement windows and charming front porch, overlooked what remained of the old Gravenstein apple orchard in the distance. The garden beds along the North side of the house were filled with tall stately Camellias, creating an enchanting Camellia forest. Many of the Camellias were from Nuccio’s Camellia Nursery in California. Nestled against the curving stone steps to the porch were large billowing blue and purple Hydrangeas. On the sunniest side of the house, a small meadow garden filled with wild flowers escaped, with permission, into the neighbor’s grassy yard.
Against the house a bed of Japanese Anemone fluttered in the breeze. Unlike the challenges I faced with Ada Gentry’s dilapidated garden, Georgia’s garden had been intermittently cared for. The Camellias and Hydrangeas thrived in the Oregon rain. The challenge then became how to selectively prune and maintain the original intent of the garden.
Another move, this time to Arkansas, brought me to a 1920′s bungalow located in Hillcrest. The yard was filled with unruly Lilacs in need of pruning, a multitude of exquisite Iris running rampant across the yard, a hedge of overgrown Abelia ‘Edward Goucher,’ and a trio of lush fig trees.
In the middle of the back panel of grass rose a large swamp thing that I later learned was Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet.’ Many of the plants in this garden dated back several generations, having been handed down originally from a great-grandmother, to her daughter, and to a grandchild.
The source of this magical supply of plants came not from the previous owner’s of this property, but from Bunny, the elegant older woman and scholar who lived next door. Her own gardens had outgrown their boundaries and she generously shared her inherited plants with her neighbors. The lilacs, having come from her childhood home, were of special value. Bunny shared many of her gardening secrets with me and I still divide my Iris carefully every few years and feel Bunny’s critical eye upon my work.
Ada Gentry, Georgia, and Bunny are my heroines and have inspired my gardening endeavors to this day.