Monday, May 9, 2016

Spirit in the Garden

On Thursday mornings in the spring (weather permitting), Jack and I can usually be found working at Oaklawn Garden in Germantown. Oaklawn, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the garden, is the former homeplace of Harry and Becky Cloyes. Oaklawn has quite a collection of azaleas and daffodils, and for a number of years, the grounds have been open to visitors as a public garden. But prior to becoming a public garden, Oaklawn was where Harry's family lived and made a living from the land since 1918. 

Harry was born in the family home (circa 1854) in 1926. The family farmed and grew plants until 1951, when Harry married Becky and they opened a nursery and florist, the first in Germantown. After they reached an advanced age, Harry and Becky donated the property to the city of Germantown to be used as a public garden, although they continued to live in the home until their deaths.

Jack and I never knew Mr. Harry personally (he died in 2011, the
year before we began volunteering with the Master Gardeners at Oaklawn), but I feel I know something about him through stories told by others who were acquainted with him. Apparently, Harry was a staunch believer in natural gardening practices. He was an organic gardener, using manure for fertilizer and leaves for mulch. His preference for the natural also extended to the appearance of the garden, telling one garden visitor, "They [city officials] wanted to make it like Bellingrath (a much larger garden and estate in Mobile, Alabama) but I just told them no . . . . I like it to look natural." (Quoted from Steve Scheer's blog "A Rider's Journal," April 18, 2010.) And so, it remained, not only after Harry's death in 2011 but also until Miss Becky's death in 2015.

Harry and Becky Cloyes
Photograph by Steve Scheer (used with permission)

In the same way that the spirit of those we loved remains with us after they die, I believe that something of the spirit of the gardener remains in the garden, long after the gardener departs. When I look at the massive Redwood tree in front of the house, I think of the story of how Mr. Harry inserted a pipe deeply into the ground and watered the sapling through the pipe to promote deep root growth to encourage the unlikely survival of a tree not commonly found in this area. This giant tree stands here because of his care.

Jack and I had the pleasure of knowing Ms. Becky for a few years before her death. When the Master Gardeners convened on Thursday mornings to work in the garden, she came out of the house to sit in the same area where she use to sit with Harry. Sometimes she read her paper while we worked, and I think she looked forward to chatting with the Master Gardeners when we stopped mid-morning for a break. I know we looked forward to chatting with her.

Photograph by Julie Morgan (used with permission)
 She never offered unsolicited gardening advice (as I'm guessing Harry would have), and I wished now that I had asked her more questions, both about her life and her garden. Those were missed opportunities.

Last Thursday at the garden, when I walked passed the house, I could almost sense the spirit of the gardeners who had toiled in this garden: Harry's mother, Mamie, and then Harry and Becky. I think we leave something of ourselves behind in the plants we tend and nurture. 

As a public park, I know the city of Germantown will want Oaklawn to have a more manicured look than Mr. Harry would have preferred. From what I understand, he resisted much pruning of the azaleas. But a number of the azaleas have reached the point where they need to be pruned for the health of the plant. Some have massive old trunks that are nearly dead and need to be rejuvenated. Others are healthy, but have gotten so large that pathways have been obscured. 
Master Gardener Julie Morgan at Oaklawn

But as I prune Harry and Becky's azaleas, I try to respect the wishes of the original gardener, who loved and cared for these plants for more than a half-century. Some plants may be smaller when I finish my pruning, but I try to make them look natural. I hope Harry would approve. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated and will appear as soon as they are approved.