A little girl in her garden no sloven
Once baked all her dirt in the oven –
But they said what you bake
Is not tart and not cake,
Macaroon, macaroni, or muvven –
Southern writer Eudora Welty did just that to sterilize the garden dirt from nematodes at her mother’s Pinehurst Street home they shared in Jackson, Mississippi. As with Virginia Woolf at Monks House, Eudora incorporated garden images as metaphor and used poetry and mystery of gardens as she discovered parts of her characters there.
“Gardening is akin to writing stories . . .” as in “A Curtain of Green” about one of a series of yard boys her mother employed and trained – “a round-faced youth of about sixteen” balancing on a ladder behind a curtain of cascading roses.
As I saw him there without a name to his initials . . . encircled by wide-open Silver Moons and pricked on every side by their strong thorns, with their fragrance and the gold dust of their pollen sweeping his cheeks, it might have been the first time I knew the compulsion to step back and place myself at a story-teller’s remove.
Landscape taught Eudora things a writer must know, feelings expressed in gestures, descriptions of certain plants. Eudora used landscape to depict the deprivation of tenant farmers during the Depression of the 1930s , the hardscrabble life they eked out in a sort of dignity, a fierce defiance, a farm woman’s garden, plants growing in pipe planters next to her porch. “The Whistle” tells the story of a farmer and his wife, for example, who are awakened in the night by a freeze warning; without a word, they arise and drag all their bedclothes outside in a vain attempt to cover tender plants.
“Livvie” is the story of a young black woman married to an old man whose garden is a bare, leafless grove of bottle trees – “a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue” to keep “evil spirits from coming into the house.” The wife’s garden, on the other hand, is a swept yard with blood-red roses blooming every month.
Virgie in “The Wanderer” aims to get married on her “bulb money.” Characters in other stories bear names that seem clipped right out of the Mississippi Market Bulletin, names like Maideen, Billy Texas, Eva Sistrunk. Through the Farm Bulletin, Eudora met many other gardeners and farmers’ wives with whom she corresponded, traded plants and seeds, and sometimes formed close friendships – such as with Elizabeth Lawrence in North Carolina. Lawrence wrote that, “Like Eudora’s novels, the market bulletins are a social history of the Deep South. My own life would have been a bit poorer without those things, for which I will always thank Eudora Welty” (Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins).
Eudora and her mother, Chestina, relied on the writings of Lawrence and Vita Sackville-West for information on plant life and garden cycles. However, Eudora warned, “Gardening is not intellectual; you must get out and do it. The absolute contact between the hand and the earth, the intimacy of it, that is the instinct of a gardener.”
By the 1930s , the neighborhood social scene gradually shifted from the street front with its increasing noise and fumes of passing traffic to previously utilitarian back yards. More creative garden space allowed for expressing individuality, especially in terms of beauty. Besides, during the ensuing Great Depression, no one could afford to go anywhere else. Hedges, trees, trellises and arbors provided privacy as well as a sense of gracious hospitality to visitors. Wavy floral borders instead of straight edges enclosed lawns in a preference for naturalistic form. Only rose gardens remained geometric.
Here is where both Chestina and Eudora indulged their creative instincts to develop what had already become known as the proverbial English layered garden style. Chestina lavished most of her own time on the roses and flower borders fed by abundant sunshine filtered through surrounding pines. Climbing roses softened angular structures, such as yellow “Lady Banks” (Rosa banksiae var. lutea) and cameo pink “Dr. W. Van Fleet” (Hybrid Rosa wichurana, 1899). Christina planted several spireas, including S. thunbergii (“breath of spring,” she called it) and Siraea x vanhouttei (the Southern favorite “bridal wreath”).
The camellia, however, was Eudora’s favorite flower in her mother’s garden. Once in a dream, she wrote, millions of camellias shrunk into only one, a closing of a jewel box “holding one thing that is the essence and holy.” With a little snap, that was the end of the dream and the beginning of war – Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.
During World War II, gardening allowed Eudora to create order out of a sense of chaos instead of dwelling on her brothers and a serious boyfriend in foreign battle. Immersion in the garden was tense, intense, leaving little time for her real work of writing. “I only think about . . . the planting and transplanting and spading and digging and weeding and watering, and then I am asleep and doing the same thing in my sleep . . .” she wrote in a letter to her agent.
Memories entwined with Eudora’s actual garden. “I am just now lying in the pine needles in the side yard – it is sunny and sweet smelling – fall butterflies . . . the camellias doing so well – Leila [commonly known as “Catherine Cathcart:] & the Herme . . .”
Camellias still are popular in the South, especially C. japonica, the bulk of Eudora’s collection. Native to Japan and China, japonica’s first recorded appearance in England was the “Alba Plena” in 1792. From there it spread to the U. S. Eastern Seaboard and into the Deep South. In Mississippi, February through March is its peak bloom time, with azaleas merging and taking over into April and even May in some years.
Today, more than 40 camellias dating to the early 20th century survive in the Welty gardens, among them “Lady Clare” which appears as a character’s name in her novel Delta Wedding, and “Élegans” planted in the cemetery in The Optimist’s Daughter.
Eudora could experience occasional mystic communion in her Southern garden:
Every evening when the sun is going down and it is cool enough to water the garden, and it is all quiet except for the locusts in great waves of sound, and I stand still in one place for a long time putting water on the plants, I feel something new . . . a stubbornness melting . . . [a feeling] that something is lost or left unknown or undone perhaps . . .
The pace of life in America following the war sped up in optimism, both casual and practical matters. That meant perennial gardens like the Welty women’s eschewed high maintenance, partly due to Chestina’s failing health, partly due to Eudora’s travels and writing priority. Invading insects, vines, and multiplying perennials took over in the year-round growing season, not to mention hurricanes. Even so, the garden still provided joy, especially as mother and daughter replanted old-fashioned garden roses – “Lady Hillingdon,” “Maman Cochet,” “Lady Banks,” a read “Becky’s Climber” intertwined with white Confederate Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoipides), the gnarled “Silver Moon” climbing their garage – many of which Eudora named in her stories.
The garden flowers of her characters expressed their personalities and their social backgrounds, while the garden’s decline corresponded to Chestina’s declining final 15 years. “[O]vernight all the roses up and died. I never told my mother.” At the same time, four iconic old-fashioned flowers persisted: daffodils (“Silver Bells Narcissus moschatus, Elizabeth Lawrence’s favorite, too), irises, camellias, and roses.
In the short story “The Demonstrators” Eudora wrote:
The roses were done for, the perennials, too. But the surrounding crape-myrtle tree, the redbud, the dogwood, the Chinese tallow tree, and the pomegranate bush were bright as toys. The ailing pear tree had shed its leaves ahead of the rest. Past a falling wall of Michaelmas daisies that had not been tied up, a pair of flickers were rifling the grass, the cock in one part of the garden, the hen in another, picking at the devastation right through the bright leaves that appeared to have been left lying there just for them, probing and feeding.
In 1980, Eudora wrote in a letter, “It’s early in the morning, I’m having coffee by the breakfast room window looking out over the backyard (not a garden anymore, but what it is).” By the mid-1990s, the Welty garden existed mainly in Eudora’s memory. Then, finally, she decided to use her memory to restore the garden. But “it would be hell to do.” After her mother died, Eudora was able to stay in her home until she died in 2001.
Since the summer of 2008, both house and grounds have been restored by the Eudora Welty Foundation. Today, this “one writer’s garden” is maintained by a cohort of Jackson ladies who have dubbed themselves the Cereus Weeders, after Miss Welty’s Night Blooming Cereus Club of the 1930s. When they tire, they become the Cereus Readers delving into one of Eudora’s stories and taking a road trip to its setting.
SOURCE: One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place, Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown (2011)