Montrose Memories

Every year around this time, the native dwarf crested iris bloom in my woods. They are most prolific on my steep rocky hill, though also flowering in a few other spots scattered through the forest. In my garden, I am enjoying the flowers of Iris cristata ‘Montrose White’, a domestic variety. It is an elegantly simple flower, white with a yellow eye. Though its wild cousins enjoy shade, this flower is said to do best with some sun, so I tucked it into my yard where it would get intermittent sunshine and it has flowered beautifully.

This is a selection of the native iris originally sold without a name by Nancy Goodwin when she ran Montrose Nursery. It ended up with iris breeders Jan Sacks and Marty Schafer, and they named it Iris ‘Montrose White’, honoring Nancy’s garden. I got this plant from them last year, and it has been in full flower most of the week. Here it is growing with the foamflower I wrote about earlier this month, still in exuberant bloom.

When I lived in central North Carolina in the 1990’s, I enjoyed visits to nearby Montrose, a 61-acre property in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Nancy and her late husband bought it in 1977 and she has spent decades restoring the historical gardens and buildings originally owned in the mid 1800s by Governor William Alexander Graham and his wife, Susan Graham. In addition, she has added thousands of plants representing her own tastes. My favorite memory of the garden was the wilder forested area, and her enthusiasm showing me the many tiny treasures she had scattered all over the woods including her beloved Cyclamen.

I also fondly remember an all-day propagation workshop I took in April of 1995. Recently I discovered the notes from this program in a frenzy of spring cleaning. I would refer to myself as a packrat, but that casts aspersions on the purposeful collections of these rodents, as opposed to my accumulation of completely random items. Still, as a point in favor of saving everything, reading over my jottings from this busy day I found many useful bits of information on the cultivation of assorted plants. I will apply this helpful advice as new seeds are germinating daily from my current collection of winter sown seeds.

Nancy Goodwin’s father owned property only a few minutes’ walk through the woods from my home not far from Montrose, and she came to visit me there to see his land. This is where I had my first garden. She encouraged me to stay there or find a place to root and garden, to develop it over time as she had at Montrose. Though I appreciate the benefits of nurturing a garden for decades, as she did at Montrose and my aunt did at Mohonk in New York, my own circumstances have led to frequent moves. I ended up leaving my North Carolina garden in less than five years. Even now I imagine the garden it was meant to be, and maybe has become. Though I left many garden dreams behind, I feel good about the transformation I made in this short time. It was an abandoned pine plantation when I arrived, with the trees ravaged by pine beetles. I brought my neighbors together to work with foresters, thinning diseased trees. I worked to create fencing to stop cattle from destroying native wetlands. By the time I left, the forest was healthy, and the protected vernal pools attracted nearly a dozen species of amphibians.

Since I left, I’ve created several more gardens, located from the southeast to the northwest of the country. There are definite tradeoffs with frequent moves. I haven’t been able to see the fruition of my efforts, leaving gardens that only hint at what I planned for them. Staying in one place also creates a familiarity with the land, a knowledge of seasons that only builds over many years experiencing subtle annual changes.

Still, it has been fascinating having the opportunity to experience the challenges and delights of gardening in different places. In my first garden I was surrounded by world class nurseries and botanical gardens and was infused with knowledge on how to grow an eclectic mix of treasures. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest I grew exotic alpine plants, and blue poppies germinated from my seeds like weeds. Now in my current garden I appreciate my aunt’s focus on building a natural woodland garden, working with the earth to nurture struggling native species.

We make gardens for many reasons, but they are all transitory, no matter how long we cultivate the land to shape our vision. Plans we have for our plants don’t always succeed, as unwanted garden thugs creep in, and desired plants languish in what seems to be a perfect place. I know that whether I live in one place for 5 years or 50, it will never be enough time. A garden constantly changes, and our ambitions change too. Having spent more than a decade here, this is the longest I have gardened in one spot since childhood. I don’t know if this will be my forever garden, or if I will move on to yet another home.

Over the years I have had one major focus where I have lived, to leave a place better than I found it, with a greater diversity of plant and animal species. I enjoy getting to know the land more deeply every day, working to make it better for my wildlife neighbors. And on some special days, when plants weave together with memories, I appreciate how all I planned for and imagined is realized, beckoning me to live in this beautiful moment.