23 March 2012

One Writer's Garden

I am a huge fan of Eudora Welty. Miss Eudora lived her life like many Southern women I know. They have remained in the same house they grew up in a family house presided over by a strong Southern mother. Welty’s mother, Chestina was, by all accounts, that strong matriarchal character that ruled with an iron fist tucked politely in a velvet glove.

Over at Cookbook Of The Day, we wrote about Welty’s one “cookbook” a limited edition recipe for White Fruitcake. Like many Southern women, Chestina cook amazing meals but never used a recipe, telling her daughter, "Any cook worth her salt would know, given a list of ingredients, what to do with them." So Welty never became a cook. Luckily, she did better under her mother’s tutelage as a gardener.

Unlike cooking, gardening can always use a strong back and extra pair of hands. Welty’s love of nature grew in her mother’s garden and the natural world of the South became a common feature in Welty’s work. But few people realized how much of her love of Southern flora and fauna was quite literally rooted in her back yard. In her second- floor bedroom at 1119 Pinehurst Street, Welty looked out of her window and gazed into her mother’s garden, seeing it grow with her reputation as a writer.

The relatively small garden, measuring in at roughly three-quarters of an acre, it bordered the Tudor-style house on the north, south and east sides. Like the English styled house, the garden took on the air of a cottage garden with trellises, boarders, and hedges dividing the garden into different areas. The garden held over 30 varieties of camellias, Miss Eudora’s particular favorite. The earliest of the camellias planted around 1926.

Gardens, however small, need a committed and driving force. When Chestina died, that driving force was gone. Welty continued to maintain the garden, becoming the chief gardener and delegating her self-proclaimed “yard-boy” status to another gardener. But Welty grew older and her garden help moved on and her mother’s garden became a tangled mess.

In 1994, noted garden restorer, Susan Haltom, sat down with the aging Welty who lamented, “I can't bear to look out the window and see what has become of my mother's garden.” Haltom planned to "fix up" the garden as a favor for an aging and beloved writer, but soon the project took on a life of its own. Welty had already made arrangements to deed the house to the state to become a literary museum. Haltom saw the garden as a vital extension of that museum. A way to tell the story of the time: a rising middle class, conservation, technology, women’s clubs, garden clubs, and civic beautification were becoming prevalent and this garden was a reflection of those changing times. The restoration focused on the garden’s peak, a period from 1925 to 1945. Haltom’s discussions with Welty began to uncover old borders with stone rubble. Day lilies from the 1920’s began to emerge into the sunlight as well as some of Welty’s beloved camellias. A rose garden, a favorite of Chestina's, was quickly carved out. Welty, an avid photographer once climbed to the roof for aerial shots of the garden. Haltom researched every plant from that period, nixing newer varieties. After Welty died, her niece, Mary Alice White, found Chestina's 1930s gardening journal. Like the consummate gardener that she was, Chestina had drawn the garden layout complete with plant names and locations.

Photographer Langdon Clay documented Haltom’s work. Jane Roy Brown conducted additional historical research. This magnificent collaboration is documented in One Writer’s Garden. On a visit to Jackson, Mississippi, one can now wander through one writer’s garden, smelling the camellias as Eudora Welty did for over 50 years.


  1. You are just amazing. I'm a long time reader and 1st time commenter - I love your blog.

    I learn so much from you and enjoy every single bit of it.

    This was a lovely bit today and so appropriate as Spring struggles out and up. Thanks so much for all you do!
    PS - my robot word was iderdam candea...sounds life a flower :)

  2. This is a marvelous story of love, near loss, and a miraculous revival and preservation of a lovely garden deeply rooted in its time and place. It brought memories flooding back to me of my elderly lady relatives (great aunts and grandmothers) who had similar gardens, now long since sodded over in today's maintenance-challenged world. Reggie

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