That challenging question was imprinted on a T-shirt for sale at the Elizabeth Lawrence House and Garden in Charlotte that I was touring on a sultry day with curator Andrea Sprott as my guide. The property is one of two houses and two gardens that comprise Wing Haven, a local treasure tucked away in the upscale neighborhood of Myers Park.
Not being a gardener, for I have the proverbial kiss of death when it comes to plants, I asked the obvious – What does it mean?
Sprott explained that to be a successful gardener you must be both kind and cruel. Kind enough to treat the plants with care and respect, and cruel enough to remove the ones that, for whatever reason, detract from the garden’s overall beauty and vitality. Even though I don’t possess a green thumb and dig in the dirt myself, I certainly appreciate a garden setting.
As part of our Southern travels, Bill and I regularly visit Charleston, SC, renowned for its private and public gardens. One of the features we find most charming about this old and historic city is strolling down the sidewalks past the beautifully maintained single houses that were designed for the long, narrow lots plotted in the city’s early days. The narrow end of a single house faces the street with a false front door shielding a piazza. The longer end runs perpendicular to the street, and the real front door is about halfway down the length. If you glance beyond almost any home’s driveway or peer through its wrought-iron gate, you’ll be utterly captivated by the glimpse of a lush landscape.
Little did I know I could replicate that experience of espying hidden gardens here in Charlotte at Wing Haven.
Open to the public, Wing Haven is the story of two women named Elizabeth, both gardeners who lived down the street from one another on Ridgewood Avenue, one of the most famous addresses in the history of Southern horticulture. The similarities pretty much end there, for their gardens couldn’t be more different in history, purpose, and appearance.
Elizabeth Lawrence (1904-1985) basically wrote the book about gardening in the middle South, an area that encompasses North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina. She was the first female to graduate from North Carolina State University’s Landscape Architecture program, an impressive feat for a woman of her era. An avid garden designer and writer, Lawrence was frustrated that books about gardening back then didn’t address which plants would grow well in the climate of the middle South.
Her garden, started in 1948, was all about plant material. She used it as a laboratory, a place for experimentation and discovery, to find out what could grow here, both for herself and for the benefit of home gardeners in the region. She collected plants and bulbs from everywhere, planting them to see if they would take hold, survive, and thrive. She kept meticulous, handwritten notes about their progress in a card catalog, and shared her findings in her writings. Her first book, A Southern Garden, was an instant success, and her writings are still relevant today.
Elizabeth Clarkson (1904-1988), on the other hand, and her husband, Eddie, created their garden, Wing Haven Gardens & Bird Sanctuary, in 1927 to sustain birds and other wildlife, providing plantings for food, cover, and nesting sites. While Lawrence’s garden is just 70 feet by 225 feet, the Clarksons’ garden is some three acres and consists of stunning vistas, meandering brick walkways and woodland trails, formal gardens, ponds, and an herb garden, all enclosed by brick walls. Even though the Clarksons acquired 13 parcels of land over time, the design of the garden is fluid and seamless.
This Elizabeth documented the effects of DDT on birds and helped found the Mecklenburg Audubon Society. Elegant and well dressed, she nevertheless once chased down a truck spraying the chemical on her street while wearing a pink peignoir.
“These two very different gardens give visitors an overall gardening experience,” Sprott said.
My tour with Sprott began in Lawrence’s garden, which is laid out as a series of axial paths centered on a pool. Fish were swimming and little frogs were peaking out at water level. The garden is reminiscent of a peaceful, English cottage garden, with plants grouped by color. Lawrence made sure that something is in bloom every day of the year.
Remarkably, sixty percent of the plants are original to Lawrence and many still bloom, even as long as 60 year later. The day lilies, floxes, lady tulips, Morris midget boxwood, narrow-leaf butcher’s broom, and Hungarian bear’s breeches she planted are going strong. She’s credited with introducing Lenten roses to the Southeast, and they, too, live on. Her Japanese Stewartia is a state champion treasure tree – the largest of its kind in North Carolina. Part of the credit for the garden’s longevity is due to the preservation efforts of a subsequent owner, Lindie Wilson.
Lawrence was fond of pineapple sage, and placed it along the path so she could pass up against it, bruise the leaves, and create the smell of pineapple. I ran my hand over the leaves and, sure enough, I could detect the scent. Hummingbirds, Sprott said, love it.
We then ventured into the Clarksons’ garden, where about 90 percent of the plants are original, including clipped boxwood, a giant tulip poplar, and spring-blooming camellias. The gnarly chaste tree is a national champion treasure tree. The garden is home to raccoons, rabbits, and owls, and some 130 species of migrating birds make pit stops as part of their flight patterns.
The Clarksons built a personal place for reflection and crafted with amazing detail, including integrating plaques and statuary into the wall and pathways. They even formed little ledges into the wall so that Elizabeth could rest her head while sitting on a bench and not crush the bun in her hair. Sprott and I could hear the harmony of a chorus of birds, chirping and chattering, but they refused to cooperate with my photography efforts.
The house is pretty much as the Clarksons left it. On the dining room table is the medallion bowl where they kept Daphne, the bunny. The pink can they used to serve mealworms to birds sits on the kitchen counter.
As we departed, out from under a bush slithered Frank, the lengthy, resident rat snake. Sprott said he’s great at his job of keeping unsavory rodents at bay. I can’t think of a more indelible image to instill a permanent memory that Clarkson designed her garden to be a natural habitat for wildlife. Surely it would make her happy that her garden still exists in that manner.