My memories of the early years of my marriage to Robert are in so many ways tied to the garden we first created together. Our first home was a tiny cottage, built in the early 1930s originally as a mother-in-law suite for another home, in the historic Cobbham neighborhood in Athens, GA. The original property, a wide and deep old pecan grove tract, had been divided at some point in the past to separate the main house from the cottage, leaving the lion’s share of the land to the latter. When we acquired the cottage, built from field stones collected from local terraced farm land, it was barely visible from the street, obscured from view by seventy plus years of unbridled overgrowth. It had literally become a beast of the southern wild. We cut our teeth the hard way clearing away tenacious invasives like bamboo, ligustrum, potato vine, and Chinese privet along with enough liriope to fill several dump trucks. The experience turned us into gardening snobs in the process and thus we decided we would only grow natives plants, or highly prized imports, in our new garden landscape. We were young and in love and childless and had time to be haughty, and ridiculous, about such things.
We had many gardeners who influenced our choices but we made most of our decisions based on the native plants propagated and sold at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia spring plant sale. One of our first purchases was a Flame Azalea above, or Rhododendron calendulaceum, a deciduous native plant that can be found in abundance in the wild of the southern Appalachians. We took great pride in choosing this variety of azalea for our garden, over the more common, albeit gorgeous, other azalea varieties found in our Piedmont region. It was more about plant selection then and less about the simple beauty. What I see now, 14 years after we first planted it, is how those upright branches give way to orangey-coral clusters of vase shaped flowers and the stunning silhouette it casts against a crystal blue sky.
One of the reasons this property so appealed to us was our discovery of a stone walled sunken flagstone patio with a tiny pond, long forgotten and abandoned, which was nestled beneath a canopy of old growth dogwoods and pecan trees. As we unearthed the patio and its perimeter beds, we discovered the peeking heads of southern shield fern fronds (Dryopteris ludoviciana), another native to the southeastern United States, buried under deep leaf mulch. We also found the non-native buttercup english ivy (Hedera helix), starting its tentacled climb up the craggy patio walls, an across the pond visitor that earned its stay by being just too freaking cute with its miniature variegated creamy yellow and chartreuse green leaves. Gathered together unselfconsciously in a vintage medicine cup above, against the stunning backdrop of Katie Ridder‘s Moonflower wallpaper, this floral triumvirate of flame azalea, hairy fern shoots, and ivy just takes my breath away. And I couldn’t care less about the horticultural pedigree.
My current garden now includes only plants that make me happy. I certainly have lots of natives but plenty of the plants in my garden are simply visitors to the area that tolerate the climate well. I avoid invasives like the plague, but will invite just about any other plant to my garden so long as a brush past it makes me stop and smile. And, of course, if it looks good in a vase.
IMAGES | Floral styling, arrangements and photography by Tami Ramsay of CLOTH & KIND