One of the most enjoyable aspects of gardening is watching it all grow. Witnessing the short- and long-term changes can be magical, as gardens can sometimes become something greater than what we originally expected.
Sue Kirkman has had the pleasure of watching her backyard garden grow and evolve over the past 11 years, when it was first designed and installed back in 2011. Kirkman and her husband Ronnie have lived in their Mount Airy home for 47 years, most of which time the backyard was nothing more than an expanse of lawn. The nudge to create a garden came in the form of daylilies, which needed to be transplanted to accommodate a construction project.
A new garage and driveway were set to be built where Sue had her daylily collection. The daylilies were special to Sue because they came from her late mother’s garden. So knowing she would have to dig them up and relocate them, she figured it was a good time to plant the garden she’d always wanted.
“My husband wanted to enclose the carport and have this paved as a place to park the trailer,” Sue said. “Building all that took away where I had my daylilies planted. My mom had 31 varieties of daylilies, and I didn’t want to lose them.”
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All of the daylilies found a new home within the new garden, as did her mother’s irises and countless bulbs. A trove of new plantings followed suit, including dozens of perennials, groundcovers, trees and shrubs — many of which are rare.
Sue enlisted the plant knowledge and design expertise of Karen Harris, owner of Foothills Nursery and Herbs in Mount Airy to create the garden of her dreams. Over the course of the summer in 2011, Harris and her team turned the Kirkman’s backyard lawn into a lush, outdoor retreat.
“There was nothing back here when we started,” Sue said. “Karen took what I told her and just went with it.”
Harris designed a space with unique shrub species and cultivars, noble conifers, winding pathways, a multi-functional water feature and an inviting sitting area. What was once a full sun area has been transformed, as fast-growing river birch, redbuds, maples, dogwoods and a rare ‘Momi’ fir (Abies firma) have created pockets of shade.
“Momi fir is the only fir that will do really well in the south,” Harris explained.
Most firs, such as Fraser fir and Douglas fir, do not thrive in our region because of the summer humidity. The ‘Momi’ in Kirkman’s garden was barely a couple of feet tall when it was planted. It now towers over the house and garden, reaching upwards of 25 feet.
The layout of the garden has created a thriving sun-shade dynamic, which is able to support marginal-hardy plants, such as bay laurel and gardenia. The garden itself is an insulated pocket, where the framework of the plants, the stone walkways, the gravel patio and the Kirkman house all work together to create a protected area where borderline plants can thrive.
Vines are also an integral element in Sue’s garden. A central pergola is covered in twisted, mature American wisteria, which created a dense shade for the seating area beneath. Akebia is neatly trellised nearby, to screen the HVAC unit. Both had unfortunately finished blooming when I visited the garden, but I can imagine the smell is very heady in its prime.
Many edible plants are scattered throughout the garden, including asparagus, strawberries and blueberries. Ornamental blueberry bushes and zenobia, both of which have dramatic foliage displays in both spring and fall, are also featured.
“The neat thing about zenobia, the leaves are kind of bluish now, in the fall they turn orange and red, a flame red, so beautiful,” Sue said.
In addition to the unusual plant species, the intricate artwork placed throughout the garden is what makes Sue’s garden really stand out. She has several large, wooden “barn quilts” displayed through the garden. They were made by local artist Laura Judd. Sue makes whimsical clay leaf faces, that hang on the pergola posts and are all different. Colorful garden stakes made with plates and saucers also dot the garden.
Another playful piece of garden art is a small, dazzling chandelier that hangs from a shepherds hook off the nearby deck. It was given to Sue by her granddaughter.
“Our granddaughter ordered the chandelier for me for my birthday,” Sue said. “It’s solar and at night when it lights up, the light sparkles everywhere. It’s so neat.”
Ceramic toadstools made by Sue’s late mother are clustered in a perennial bed. Those little mustard-capped mushrooms felt to me like a special part of Sue’s garden, as one of many ways that her mother’s memory is scattered throughout the space. I’m sure when each of those 31 varieties of daylilies bloom, it’s a special moment in Sue’s garden, too.
Retired for almost two decades, Sue has found her happy place to be just a few steps outside her backdoor. I can’t think of a better way to fill the hours in your day, than to tend and cultivate a backyard garden.
“I love it. I’m out here everyday,” Sue said. “I start about 8:30 and maybe come in at five to fix something for supper. I taught school for 30 years, but this is my love. This is what I love to do.”
Sue’s garden, along with seven others will be featured on Mount Airy Blooms Garden Tour, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow (June 11). The tour is presented by Mount Airy Garden Clubs which raise money for community beautification projects.
Tickets are available at https://mountairybloomstour2022.eventbrite.com or at three of the participating gardens on the day of the tour.
For more information, go to mountairyblooms.com.
Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon or [email protected], with “gardening” in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101.
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